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October 9th, 2006:

Last day to register is tomorrow

Still not registered to vote in Texas? Tomorrow’s your last chance to fix that oversight.

Tuesday is the last day to register to vote for the November general election.

Registration forms can be picked up at local Department of Public Safety offices, local libraries and at the Secretary of State’s office. Residents also can sign up at a local voter registration office.

Applications are available online at www.sos.state.tx.us/elections as well.

The applications must be either hand-delivered to the county voter registrar by Tuesday or postmarked that day.

Remember, if you don’t vote, you don’t get to complain about the outcomes.

Overall, there’s been a lag in voter registrations in Harris County.

A new state database required by federal law has made it easier to track people moving around Texas.

When a voter registers in a different county, the database flags the duplication and allows the old county to remove the name.

The system was activated in January, and about 5,000 names have been removed from the Harris County roll so far, said Paul Bettencourt, Harris County tax assessor-collector, whose office handles the local voter roll.

It’s a small number in a county with nearly 2 million voters, but it’s still more than 12 percent of all voter purges since last November.

The main reason fewer people are registered now is that fewer are signing up, Bettencourt said. Tuesday is the last day to register for the Nov. 7 election.

“We’ve been flat as a pancake. This is a really weak year,” Bettencourt said, despite an abundance of voter-registration drives.

[…]

In Harris County, officials have been busy pruning invalid names even as they urge new voters to sign up.

More than 40,000 names have been chopped from the roll since last November, typically in a process that begins when new registration cards mailed to voters every two years are returned undeliverable.

Such registrants are removed from the roll if they don’t vote in one of the next two federal elections, conducted in even-numbered years.

Voters who don’t change residence stay on the roll and receive a new card every other year, even if they don’t vote.

Bettencourt also scours driver’s license records, the U.S. Postal Service change-of-address database and the Social Security office’s list of the deceased.

[…]

About 1.91 million voters are registered in Harris County, down from 1.95 million in 2004, or about 80 percent of those eligible to register.

Voter registration, along with voting, always peaks in presidential election years.

About 55,000 people have registered in Harris County since March this year. That compares with 155,000 for the same period in 2004, when President Bush and Sen. John Kerry were in a tight election battle.

This year’s number also is much smaller than the 92,000 registrations in 2002, the last nonpresidential election year for federal offices such as the U.S. House and Senate.

I don’t quite understand the math here. Forty thousand deletions plus 55,000 new registrations sounds like an increase to me, not a decrease. Even if you assume that the new county-comparison database effect is separate, that’s only 45,000 removals. Either the other factors (such as deaths) are included but not enumerated or something doesn’t add up.

Be that as it may, there’s a separate point to highlight:

Although the hottest national voting issues involve the security of electronic voting systems and what identification should be required for voting, a third issue is emerging along with the fierce debate about illegal immigration.

In testimony before Congress earlier this year, Bettencourt said nothing prevents potential voters from falsely indicating they are citizens on their registration cards.

Well, there is the state law against making a false statement on a registration application:

§ 13.007. FALSE STATEMENT ON APPLICATION.

(a) A person commits an offense if the person knowingly makes a false statement or requests, commands, or attempts to induce another person to make a false statement on a registration application.
(b) An offense under this section is a Class B misdemeanor.
(c) For purposes of this code, an offense under this section is considered to be perjury, but may be prosecuted only under this section.

A Class B misdemeanor can mean a fine of up to $2500 and up to 180 days in jail. I’d say that’s not nothing, but maybe Paul Bettencourt has a different definition of the word in mind. His suggestion of “some sort of national database of citizens that local voter registrars could use” is one that might have merit, but given the aggressive campaign against voting rights by Republicans here and elsewhere, I’m not at all inclined to accept this as a good faith proposal on his part.

The battle for the State House

There’s a long article in the Chron today about the electoral battles in the State House and how that may shape the 80th Legislature. A couple of points of interest leap out, starting with this:

Democrats need only to pick off three or four Republican House members to leave Craddick, a Republican from Midland, vulnerable to a challenge from his own party, they say.

Craddick’s firm leadership style, described by some as autocratic, has created an undercurrent of discontent, and Republican losses of House seats in the Nov. 7 election could inspire a challenge, said House Mexican-American Caucus Chairman Pete Gallego, D-Alpine.

“There’s a sense of, would they rather lose the whole chamber (eventually) or would they rather jettison the speaker, and I think most of them would rather jettison the speaker,” Gallego said.

At least four Republican House members are quietly sending signals of their interest in challenging Craddick if Republicans fare poorly in the election, Gallego said. He declined to identify the possible challengers, who don’t want to alienate Craddick prematurely.

I’m moderately amazed that Rep. Gallego is saying all this. Not because I don’t think that Craddick needs to watch his back, but because this is a rather enormous thing to say for the record. Even picking up four seats would leave the GOP with a solid 82-68 advantage, and even with the departures of Al Edwards and Vilma Luna there’s quite a few Dems who are on Craddick’s leadership team. If that’s not a big enough margin for him to hold on as Speaker, that’s really saying something. Maybe this is more of a tactical maneuver on Gallego’s part, I don’t know. The fact that he said it to a reporter is striking.

Republican campaign experts expect the GOP to keep its 86-64 margin in the 150-member House but concede the potential loss of one seat in a worst-case scenario.

Democrats expect to gain at least two seats and as many as five.

For Democrats, the key races involve an open seat for retiring Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, and challenges against incumbents, Rep. Martha Wong, R-Houston, and Rep. Gene Seaman, R-Corpus Christi.

“If (Craddick) loses all three of those, it’s possible that he loses his speakership,” said Kelly Fero, an Austin-based Democratic campaign consultant.

Republicans counter that several rural Democratic incumbents are vulnerable, along with freshman Rep. Hubert Vo, D-Houston, and that GOP wins in those races would offset Republican losses elsewhere.

“I don’t see much change during an off-year election,” said Republican campaign consultant Royal Masset of Austin.

Democrats and Republicans each have a half dozen seats that are equally vulnerable, said Bryan Eppstein, a Fort Worth-based GOP consultant.

“For every Republican that loses, there will be a Democrat that loses,” Eppstein said.

Republicans concede that changing demographics in the Dallas-Fort Worth area will create tougher than normal re-election campaigns for GOP incumbents Rep. Toby Goodman and Rep. Tony Goolsby.

But they consider rural Democratic incumbents – including Rep. Chuck Hopson, D-Jacksonville; Rep. Mark Homer, D-Paris; Rep. Robby Cook, D-Eagle Lake; and Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin – as vulnerable targets for GOP gains. And they expect to win the seat of retiring Rep. Pete Laney, D-Hale Center, in West Texas.

However, Democrats counter that former Crosby County Judge Joe Heflin is in good shape to keep Laney’s seat in the Democratic column because of his close ties to rural communities and his support for their public schools. Republican nominee Jim Landtroop sends his children to private schools and is backed by school voucher supporters.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: If the rural Dems like Hopson and McReynolds can survive 2002 and 2004, what reason is there to think they’ll do worse in 2006? There are no guarantees, of course, and for what it’s worth I’ve heard concerns on the Democratic side about Hopson, but I just don’t see what would make this election any tougher for them. Quite the reverse, in fact.

I’m among the people who basically wrote off HD85 when Pete Laney announced his retirement, but since then I’ve heard all kinds of good things about Joe Heflin, including a lot of optimism about his chances to retain that seat. I’m still not convinced that he can overcome the partisan lean of that district, but he’s certainly putting up a good fight. Call me pessimistic but hoping to be surprised.

I note that the other high profile Democratic-held open seat – HD118, formerly occupied by Carlos Uresti – was not mentioned in this article. Given that it’s a 55-45 Dem district and that the Republican challenger has a pretty good resume, that’s remarkable. If that was an oversight, it’s sloppy; if it’s a deliberate omission, it’s telling. I believe the dynamic of the CD23 special election helps Democratic hopeful Joe Farias more than it helps Republican George Antunya – maybe that has something to do with it. In any event, if this one is not being discussed in the same breath as the others, that’s good news for the Dems.

As for the Hubert Vo/Talmadge Heflin rematch, I just don’t see it. Heflin had no money as of the June 30 reporting deadline. The district isn’t any friendlier to him in terms of demographics. He’s no longer the Appropriations chair. It’s only recently that he’s started any real campaigning, from what I hear. About the only favorable thing I can think of for Heflin is the overlap of HD149 into SD07, where Dan Patrick may have some coattails. But if Republicans are hanging their hats on this sort of analysis, they’re sadly mistaken.

In 2004, President George W. Bush took 61.5% of the district vote against John Kerry. And in the only other local race where the entire district voted between Republican and Democratic candidates, Harris County Sheriff Tommy Thomas defeated Democrat Guy Robert Clark by nearly eleven percentage points.

Those of us who can read charts will know that the 61.5% for Bush is his statewide share. He got 53.4% in HD149. Tommy Thomas was one of a dozen or so countywide Republicans in contested races, and as with Bush he scored lower in HD149 than he did overall – 53.9% in the district versus 55.4% overall. Frankly, I feel better about Vo’s chances after reading this.

There are other races the article doesn’t mention as being potential swings. Republicans will be aiming for the other two freshman Dems, Mark Strama in Austin and David Leibowitz in San Antonio, plus Yvonne Gonzalez Toureiiles and the open seat left behind by Vilma Luna, both in South Texas. Democrats have quite a few other prospects besides the three named above – Kristi Thibaut in Houston and a raft of Dallas/Fort Worth candidates: Paula Hightower Pearson, Harriet Miller, Katy Hubener, Allen Vaught (who picked up a nice DMN endorsement to go with his ParentPAC nod), and Phillip Shinoda. Capitol Inside has a list of some “sleeper” races that I’ll get to in a subsequent post, almost all of which are Democratic opportunities.

Bottom line as I see it is that the Dems are very likely to pick up seats. I’d call one a disappointment rather than a best case. I don’t know if they can get enough to put Tom Craddick in danger of becoming an ex-Speaker, but I do believe he will have a smaller circle of lieutenants to command. We’ll know soon enough.

Interview with Scott Brann

And here it is, my final interview with a Harris County State Rep candidate. Today’s subject is Scott Brann, the Democratic candidate for HD136 against Rep. Beverly Woolley, who is a member of the House leadership and a main player in the TRMPAC scandal.

Here’s the interview:

Link for the MP3 file is here. Just because I’ve run out of candidates to interview doesn’t mean I’ve run out of subjects. I’ve got more in the works, including one I think you’ll really like for later this week. I hope you’ve found this series to be useful, and I hope I can build on that for the future.

Here are my previous interviews:

Gary BinderimInterview
Glenn MelanconInterview
Jim HenleyInterview
David HarrisInterview
Ted AnkrumInterview
Shane SklarInterview 1, Interview 2
John CourageInterview
Nick LampsonInterview, Interview about space
Mary Beth HarrellInterview
Bob SmitherInterview
Hank GilbertInterview
Joe FariasInterview
Harriet MillerInterview
Ellen CohenInterview
Diane TrautmanInterview
Rep. Scott HochbergInterview
Kristi ThibautInterview
Rep. Hubert VoInterview
Dot Nelson-TurnierInterview
Sherrie MatulaInterview
Sammie MillerInterview
Mark McDavidInterview
Rep. Ana HernandezInterview
Chad KhanInterview
Scott BrannInterview

KHOU covers John Davis’ mystery expenses

There’s not been a lot of local news coverage of State Rep campaigns so far. One way to get covered is to spend lots of campaign money without documenting what it’s for.

Republican state Rep. John Davis has represented the Clear Lake area for eight years, but there are questions about what happened to nearly $100,000 in campaign donations.

Like every member of the Texas House of Representatives, Rep. Davis collects campaign donations and is required to report them to the Texas Ethics Commission.

11 News tracked Rep. Davis’s campaign finance reports for the last six years and found that unlike most members of the Texas House, Rep. Davis is unusually vague about what happens to much of that money.

Most of his reports are specific and follow the rules: $50 for the electric bill in his Austin apartment; $300 for a sponsorship of the NASA area little league team.

But there were also entries such as, $5,490 for “miscellaneous expenses,” paying of an American Express bill. In fact, credit card charges that contained no explanation as to what the card actually purchased total $48,734 in the last six years.

After receiving a citizen complaint about that, the Texas Ethics Commission sent Rep. Davis a letter announcing an investigation and asking him to provide copies of the American Express bills.

Rep. Davis says he is complying.

More entries included John Davis paying John Davis with campaign donations. He lists them as reimbursements for “out of pocket expenses,” but the ethics commission rules are clear on that: Politicians need to specifically say what they’re purchasing, and why they need to be reimbursed with campaign donations. And Rep. Davis never does. In six years, those out of pocket reimbursements add up to $50,135.

Rep. Davis told 11 News by phone, “I made a mistake, and we’ll get it corrected. It’s incumbent on me to know what the rules are.”

He said all the expenses were for legitimate campaign or legislative purposes.

I’m sure you didn’t need another reason to vote for Sherrie Matula, but here it is anyway. Much of the legwork (though not the actual complaint) on this has been done by Muse – well done! PinkDome provides some artwork for the story (there’s video at the KHOU link above), while John Coby and PDiddie join in.

To be annexed or not to be annexed

I think when all is said and done I’m indifferent to the question of whether or not Houston eventually annexes the Woodlands. From a strictly Houston perspective, I can see pros and cons to either outcome, as I’m sure our neighbors to the north can based on the Kingwood experience.

I don’t know what will ultimately happen. I do know that whoever wants to be Mayor of Houston after Bill White leaves office in 2009 should be spending all of his or her spare time thinking about how to handle this, because it will all happen during the next Mayor’s three terms. We’ll have a better idea what the possibilities are by then, probably after this next legislative session.

The road to self-governance won’t be easy. Several political and legislative hurdles must be cleared.

To become a city, The Woodlands must get Houston’s approval or seek a change in the state’s annexation law.

Forming a public service district with taxing powers also would require legislative approval, but it would be a much easier task to accomplish than incorporation. Lawmakers routinely pass bills to create the special districts.

It’s possible the community could end up relying on both options, using a management district while leaders work toward incorporation, which could take longer.

Both options require time to study and implement, and that is what’s behind the sense of urgency, Deretchin said. The Legislature meets only every two years, which means The Woodlands has just two sessions, 2007 and 2009, to try to get a governance bill passed, he said.

But the time and money spent on exploring becoming a city could be moot if Houston refuses to allow the community to incorporate or it decides to annex.

I think if something doesn’t happen this session, you can just about count on Houston annexing the Woodlands on schedule. Keep an eye on Rep. Rob Eissler, and tune into my interview with his opponent Sammie Miller, who has some things to say on this subject.

One more thing, from this sidebar piece on the ins and outs of annexation:

Q: Is any other Texas city as aggressive as Houston has been with annexation?

A: It’s a fascinating subject, because Houston is a unique case in Texas. Other cities are pretty aggressive, but Dallas-Fort Worth got surrounded and shut down. San Antonio pretty much dominates the metropolitan area there. Austin has some cities to the north that are constraining them.

When I first moved to Houston in 1988, I made regular excursions back to San Antonio to visit college buddies. I was always amused at how the city limit of San Antonio was reached almost immediately after crossing the Bexar County line, which was about ten miles before you reached any real population center. At least now I understand why that is.

Chevron leases original Enron building

Chevron continues its push to occupy all available downtown offie space.

After remaining a dark spot on the Houston skyline for the past few years, the former Enron headquarters will be coming to life again next year.

Chevron plans to lease the glass tower at 1400 Smith St., which has 1.3 million square feet. The California-based company said it plans to bring the majority of its local work force downtown.

The 50-story tower was sold in 2003 after Enron’s collapse in 2001. The building has remained vacant ever since.

New York-based Brookfield Properties Corp. said Thursday it purchased the building, now known as Four Allen Center, for $120 million and leased the entire property to Chevron USA.

When I worked downtown at 1600 Smith Street, we referred to our next-door neighbor as “the Speed Stick building”. My most vivid memory of it is from after a tornado touched down and passed over it in 1993, blowing out a huge number of its windows. That took a couple of months to fully repair.

Last February, in its effort to bring most of the operations together, Chevron leased 465,000 square feet in the Continental Center I building at 1600 Smith. It also owns and occupies 1500 Louisiana, another former Enron tower that Chevron purchased in 2004.

As noted in February, there were a few bumps in the road for Chevron in its attempt to lease the new Enron building. I blogged about that here, here, here, and here.