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March 17th, 2006:

On the topic of the state party chair

I don’t know any of the three gentlemen who have announced their intentions to run for Chair of the Texas Democratic Party. There’s been a lot of emails whizzing around with this person endorsing that person and so on and so forth. I don’t have a preference at this point, other than the fervent wish that we all remember to put aside any hurt feelings after a winner is chosen.

The one thing that could sway my opinion towards one of these candidates right now is if any of them answer South Texas Chisme’s questionnaire. I’m hoping that all three do, so that I can make a truly informed choice. If not, well, at least I’ll have a criterion for elimination.

BOR has printed a bunch of those emails I mentioned, in case you haven’t seen them. If you’ve already made your mind up, you can express your preference by taking PDiddie’s poll.

Earl Abel rides again

Best news I’ve heard this week.

Earl Abel’s, the landmark coffee shop that locals have cherished since 1933, will continue operating at its current location under new ownership after today, which was slated to be the restaurant’s last day.

Jerry Abel, the namesake’s son and current owner, said Tuesday that he has made a deal to sell the diner’s concept, including the name, recipes and fixtures.

Though details about the handover are expected at a 10 a.m. news conference today, the San Antonio Express-News has learned the restaurant will belong to Arias Retail, a local company whose partners include Gene Larsen and Roger Arias.

The property where Earl Abel’s sits now — a prime piece of real estate at Hildebrand and Broadway — has been sold to local developer Koontz McCombs. It plans to rezone the 2.4 acres and replace the restaurant with a luxury condominium high-rise.

“Now I’ll have some place to go eat,” Abel said. “I think it’ll be all right.”

Restaurant staffers said the new owners plan to reopen at the current location next Tuesday with expanded hours and offer three meals a day.

Current hours have been curtailed, due in part to a shrinking staff; breakfast hasn’t been offered since March 3.


Restaurant staffers, many who have worked there for decades, say they’ve been called to a Friday meeting, where they’ll be asked if they’d like to continue working.

They reported that once the restaurant reopens, it would remain at the current location for a few months before moving north to a spot on Austin Highway where Hometown Buffet was. Roger Arias declined to confirm those details.

The new location has since been confirmed. I was depressed about this when the news of Earl Abel’s pending closure first hit, so I’m quite happy to hear that the place will live on, even if it’s not in the original building. Thanks to Matt and The Jeffersonian for the link.

Another day, another memo

Another questionable memo from the Mayor Pro Tem’s office has turned up, this time with the apparently forged initials of former Council member Gordon Quan, who was Mayor Pro Tem from 2002 to 2003.

The document with Quan’s initials is dated December 2005 and appears to request that his council office be charged the cost of a newsletter to commemorate the end of his six-year council term. The memo refers to Quan as mayor pro tem, a post he left more than two years prior. It also bears a scrawled “GQ” that is different than other memos with Quan’s initials that the Houston Chronicle has obtained since the pro tem bonuses were revealed Feb. 15.

“These initials are definitely not his,” said [Alice] Lee, who ran the pro tem office, which handles some administrative duties for council members and their staffs, until fall 2004.

Quan was mayor pro tem — one year spending $50,000 less than his budget — until the end of 2003. He remained in his council office until the end of last year.

At the end of his council term, Quan said, he told pro tem employees he wanted to use surplus money from his council budget to pay for the cost of printing a final newsletter. After he had the work done, he said, pro tem employees rejected an invoice in January, saying it was too late for the transaction. So, Quan said he had to pay for the cost from his campaign funds.

But the pro tem office got credited as though it had paid for the $2,500 charge, according to budget documents previously obtained by the Chronicle. That and the disputed initials raise questions about where the money actually went, he said.

First, it looks like Quan did nothing wrong. He wasn’t in the Pro Tem’s office when this happened. As for Carol Alvarado, the good news is that this demonstrates that this stuff really did take place without her knowledge or participation. That’s also the bad news, since one has to ask again why she was unaware of it, since it was her own staff that was responsible.

Next questions: Is there more of this? How far back does it go? My uninformed guess for the first question is Yes, and I have no idea about the latter.

On another note, you may recall Orlando Sanchez’s globetrotting ways while in City Council. According to Houstonist, the DA’s office will be looking at that, too.

When prosecutors went to the mayor pro tem’s office Tuesday and confiscated truckloads of records, they were specifically looking into rumors about councilmembers’ travel expenses.

“Charging things through the mayor pro tem’s office, as opposed to their own budgets,” confirmed Chuck Rosenthal, Harris County District Attorney.

11 News has obtained documentation of some of the travel that, we’re told, piqued the DA’s interest — in particular, the travels of former councilmember Orlando Sanchez.

Sanchez flew extensively to U.S. cities like Washington, New York and San Francisco, as well as Latin and South American sites including Cozumel, Caracas and Rio de Janeiro and European cities as far flung as London, Budapest and Ploesti, Romania.

“There is quite a bit of travel associated with being an at-large member who chairs an international trade initiative and an international trade committee and sometimes would be requested by the mayor to represent him abroad,” explained Sanchez.

He says routing travel expense reports through the mayor pro tem’s office was standard, legal procedure. Sanchez points out that if he wanted to hide something, he would not have filled out public documents asking for reimbursement.

“All reimbursement requests for travel were done by forms that were filled out, signed by the councilmembers and then submitted to the pro tem’s office” said Sanchez.

True enough. Maybe this is related to the “rumors” that DA Rosenthal has said he’s heard and the tip from a “person he trusts” he said he got. Who knows?

April 17 is S-Day in Austin

You heard it first yesterday, and now it’s official: The long-awaited, much-dreaded special session on school finance begins April 17.

“This special session provides legislators of both parties a rare opportunity to significantly reduce property taxes, make substantial reforms to the franchise tax so it is fairer and broader, and ensure our schools have a reliable and constitutional stream of revenue,” Perry said.

This will be the Legislature’s fifth attempt to fix the public school finance system since 2004. Lawmakers failed to overhaul the system in the regular session of 2005 and in three special sessions in 2004 and 2005.

The big difference this time is they are faced with a June 1 deadline to repair a school system financed with local property taxes. The Texas Supreme Court has ruled the system amounts to a statewide property tax prohibited by the state constitution.

To meet the court mandate, the Legislature essentially will have two options. Lawmakers can pass a massive state tax increase, or they can spend the state’s $3 billion-plus surplus to buy down property taxes and shove the problem off to a future Legislature.

I’m curious about that. Did the Court’s ruling, in which the June 1 deadline was set, allow for such procrastination? Remember, both the plaintiffs and the state’s Solicitor General have read the opinion to mean that more money is needed for schools, and that merely lowering the $1.50 cap is not a sufficient remedy to the finding that the current system is an unconstitutional statewide property tax. Unless someone with insider knowledge tells me otherwise, I am not convinced that throwing surplus money at this in April so as to defer the real work until 2007 will be considered acceptable by the Court.

Smith wants more info on Tarrant voting glitch

Former State Supreme Court Justic Steven Smith, trying to win back a seat on the bench but losing a close primary contest to inexperienced Perry appointee Don Willet, has formally requested detailed election data pertaining to the vote count problems in Tarrant County on Primary Day (see here for more).

Smith’s campaign filed a request under the state’s public information law with the Tarrant County elections office, seeking to review data including the audit trail, optical scan ballots and precinct-by-precinct results.

“Serious mistakes were made in the counting of ballots in Tarrant County,” Smith said in a news release Thursday. “We want one fair, accurate and complete count.”

Smith lost to incumbent Justice Don Willett by about 5,000 votes, according to results posted on the Texas secretary of state’s Web site. Some results may still be in flux as counties statewide canvass their results.

The request comes more than a week after a computer programming error counted some votes cast in the March 7 primary multiple times and boosted the final tally in both party primaries by as much as 100,000 votes.

Hart InterCivic, the company that made the equipment and wrote the software, took responsibility for the error last week. Hart officials said they will work with local officials to minimize future problems. Company President Britt Kauffman said in a statement that a procedural error led to inflated counts when merging totals from early voting, absentee-by-mail voting and election-day voting into one report on election night.


Smith spokesman David Rogers said the former justice isn’t likely to request a recount because it would have to be statewide and would include all paper ballots, an effort he said could cost as much as $300,000.

No formal recount requests have been filed in Tarrant County. The deadline for such requests is Monday, after both parties have canvassed the election results, officials have said.

“Unfortunately, the true result in Tarrant County may never be known,” Rogers said. “To date, there has not been a correct count of Tarrant County ballots.

“There has been an incorrect count and there has been an attempt to correct the errors in that count.”

I don’t know what joy Smith will get from this request. If he decides to pursue the matter in court, it could get interesting. I’ve got his press release beneath the fold, which will provide some more grist for the mills of the electronic voting machine skeptics.


Sklar and Harris

Inspired by this Kos post on the effect of early money in some netroots-supported races of late, a Kos diarist named New Sweden wrote this piece about Shane Sklar in CD14. The comment thread is also worthwhile – see here for some election analysis of the district (to which I’ll add that the other statewides – Carillo, Keasler, and Brister – got 60, 62, and 64%, respectively, in 2004) and here for an elaboration on where Sklar stands on the issues. Like all candidates, Sklar is hoping to make his quarterly numbers look good, so if you like what you see, give him a hand.

David Harris had a pretty good day yesterday, between making a guest post on Wampum and picking up an endorsement from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Political Action Committee (IAVA PAC), one of seven Democratic candidates to be so honored. Anna has the full list of endorsees. Here’s a clip from the press release:

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Political Action Committee (IAVA PAC) is today announcing seven endorsements for the 2006 Congressional election cycle – all of whom served in the current wars, and promise to bring the credibility needed in Washington to challenge the course the Bush Administration has put America on in Iraq.

“These candidates are truly the ‘A-Team,'” said Iraq War Veteran and Executive Director of IAVA PAC Jon Soltz. “Every single one of them are in a position to win their races if given the proper support, which we promise to deliver to them. They have the personal experience in the current warzones to understand what our Troops need, and they will fight for our Troops and Veterans in Washington, unlike their opponents.”

“The candidates we are endorsing are patriots,” said retired General Wesley Clark, who serves on the Board of Advisors of the PAC. “The voters in their districts can cast votes for them with pride, knowing that they will serve their communities in Washington as honorably as they served their nation in war.”

“Not too long ago, I was in the same place these candidates are in,” said Paul Hackett, who also serves on the Board of Advisors of IAVA PAC. “I know what they need to win their races, and IAVA PAC is the only organization out there which will get that help to these candidates. Washington needs Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans in positions of power, as does our nation.”

As with Sklar, you can help Harris meet his quarterly numbers, too.