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December 12th, 2007:

TPA Gold Stars: Molly Ivins

[This year, in addition to recognizing its Texan of the Year (which will come this Friday), the Texas Progressive Alliance elected to recognize a number of other Texans who have contributed to Texas politics and the Progressive cause during 2007. This week, leading up to the TOY announcement, we bring you our Texas Progressive Alliance Gold Stars (one each day through Thursday). Yesterday, we recognized Denise Davis. Monday, it was Rick & Melissa Noriega. Our Silver Stars, announced last week, may be found here.]

Molly Ivins Molly Ivins. Had Molly Ivins been born in 1984 instead of 1944, she might have been a modern-day blogger. Instead, she was an award-winning, best selling journalist, columnist and author. A Texan, a progressive, a feminist, and a survivor, Molly Ivins’ passing earlier this year marked the end of an era for Texans and those who loved her fiery, populist brand. Molly Ivins gave progressives a prominent, national voice.

In honoring someone as distinguished as the late, great Molly Ivins, sometimes it’s best to do so in someone else’s words. In this case, Molly’s:

I used to say, having once been a card-carrying Sixties radical, that if I had to be called a liberal, I’d just as soon be the worst kind of liberal–a bleeding heart. I wound up being a liberal because I was for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam and that’s what I got called. I missed the New Deal and McCarthyism and all that good business.

I’ve got more important things to worry about–three-year-old kids getting raped and denied admission to a hospital because their mamas don’t have any money and things like that. I carry neither brief nor guilt for the many sins of liberals past and present: there’s too much to bleed over. And laugh over.

Indeed, Molly Ivins. Indeed. For this and more, we name you a Texas Progressive Alliance 2007 Gold Star.

The Lege versus The Supremes

Here’s something you don’t see every day – members of the Texas Legislature telling the State Supreme Court that they’ve been misinterpreted.

In an unusual move, four legislators have asked the Texas Supreme Court to reverse a recent decision that, critics say, gives refineries and other industrial plants a new shield against liability claims from contract workers injured on the job.

The ruling contradicted the law, said two Democrats — Rep. Craig Eiland of Galveston and Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston — and two Republicans — Sen. Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio and Rep. Bryan Hughes of Mineola — in a brief filed with the all-Republican court.

“This Court, by disregarding the express terms of the Legislature’s enactments, has violated the separation of powers clause of the Texas Constitution and impermissibly encroached on the powers and functions expressly reserved to the Legislature,” the lawmakers argued.

The Texas AFL-CIO also is seeking a rehearing of the case, and the Texas Trial Lawyers Association is expected to file a similar plea.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys and union officials have said the unanimous opinion, handed down Aug. 31, expands the ability of plant owners to seek liability protection from workplace accidents under the state’s workers’ compensation laws.

Had the decision been in effect before the BP refinery explosion in Texas City in 2005, contract workers might not have been able to sue the company for damages, they said.

In their brief, the lawmakers noted that the Workers Compensation Act provides immunity from liability to employers who have purchased workers compensation insurance for their direct employees.

But they said the court wrongly expanded that immunity.

“This Court’s holding in this case improperly extends that immunity to non-employer premises (plant) owners,” they added. “The Legislature has never authorized such an extension, never intended to provide such an extension, and, in fact, has repeatedly rejected such an extension.”

The fact that this was a bipartisan complaint is almost as surprising to me as the fact of its existence. What I don’t know is how likely the Supremes are to reconsider, let alone reverse, their decision. Regardless of that, I’d say the next step is for the Lege to revisit this statuts, and explicitly codify the immunity limits in language that even a State Supreme Court justice can understand. We’ll see what happens. I should note that the AFL-CIO sent out an email with a bunch of stuff about this on Monday – click the More link to read it.

(more…)

More billboard reductions coming?

Looks like we’re about to have some more action on the billboard-reduction front.

Under a proposed ordinance, billboard owners could remove some signs in exchange for relocating other ones, city officials said.

The exchange would be based on the size of the signs. For example, owners would be allowed to remove three 100-square-foot signs, then relocate a 300-square-foot sign, city officials said. The billboards could not be relocated to scenic districts.

The City Council is expected to consider the plan this morning.

The measure is similar to an agreement city officials struck with Clear Channel Outdoor, Inc. this week.

That agreement requires Clear Channel to remove two-thirds, or 881, of its 1,347 small and medium-sized billboards from private property.

The firm would remove all of its 6-foot-by-12-foot signs and 39 percent of its 12-foot-by-20-foot billboards within 180 days of the date the agreement becomes effective.

The 20-year agreement requires the company’s remaining 466 billboards to be upgraded. Some wooden signs in disrepair, for example, would be rebuilt as metal billboards.

[…]

Scenic Houston, a city beautification group, opposes the deal and the proposed ordinance, said Carroll Shaddock, the organization’s founding chairman.

Shaddock said the city’s 1980 sign ordinance prohibits the construction of new billboards. The proposed ordinance and Clear Channel’s agreement would allow it through sign relocation, he said.

“We appreciate and understand the good indentions of Mayor White and Councilmember Holm,” Shaddock said, “but we think the approach of permitting the construction of new billboards is a terrible mistake. We hope that a modification, or, if necessary, a withdrawal of the proposed agreement, will be possible.”

City officials said the ordinance and the agreement would reduce the number of billboards. The proposed ordinance and the Clear Channel agreement are the latest measures that have grown out of the city’s efforts to reduce the number of off-premise signs.

My feeling about this is the same as before. In general, fewer billboards is a good thing, but I’d still like to know the details. What are the rules and restrictions for placing or relocating a billboard going to be? Will they be allowed in places where they currently are not found? Is there a cap on billboard density? What recourse, if any, exists for folks who object to the placement of a particular billboard? My inclination is to support this, but I want to read the fine print first.

Looking Forward to 2008: Jeff Caynon

(Note: I have asked a variety of people to submit an essay to me to be posted during the month of December, to be called “Looking Forward to 2008”. This entry was written by Jeff Caynon.)

I have been a proud member of the Houston Fire Department and the Houston Professional Firefighters Association for nearly fourteen years. I am honored to lead the 3800 members of nation’s fourth largest firefighter’s union. As the newly elected President of the HPFFA I’m looking forward to 2008 as the beginning of a new era for Houston firefighters. Along with the Board of Directors, I have the good fortune to lead the men and women of HFD who are committed to serving the public. We are committed to improving our membership’s lives and working conditions.

The Houston Fire Department is the largest and busiest fire department in the state of Texas responding to well over 250,000 calls annually. We are the largest ISO rated “1” department in the world which results in lower insurance rates for every citizen and business owner in the city. We have one of the nation’s highest cardiac arrest survival rates (see this USA Today article). We have been partners in numerous medical studies including Dr. James Grotta’s recent stroke study. We are a model for fire-based EMS Systems. The HFD Arson division has a case closure rate above the national average. We have built a successful partnership between HFD, building managers, the Building Department in Triad, which has been touted as a national model. Recently we have been successful in passing a sprinkler retrofit ordinance.

I say all this to demonstrate that in every measurable way except for one HFD comes out ahead of our peers. The one indicator that is consistently out of line with the rest is SALARY. Fire House magazine ranks paid professional fire departments annually. In my fire department career HFD has never made it into the top 150.

In what will likely be the most important issue of this union’s administration, we are preparing for our next Collective Bargaining Agreement with the city. The current agreement was negotiated on the heels of six years without a pay increase under the Brown Administration. At the time both city administration and union leadership agreed that after all the years of neglect the city could not close the gap in the very first Collective Bargaining Agreement. It is time to repair the damage. We continue to slip behind our professional peers.

Another high priority issue we have is also a distressing safety concern. In partnership with Fire department administration, we intend to restore some important safety related staffing. A decision in 1989 that had more to do with saving money than lives caused Incident Command Technicians (formerly known as Chief’s Aides) to be cut from the fire department budget. Labor and management have agreed since that time on the importance of the positions for not only the safety of the public, but firefighters as well. We need to have the IC techs back as soon as possible.

We are looking forward to 2008 to take a step forward while righting some of the wrongs of the past.

Jeff Caynon is the President of the Houston Professional Firefighters Association.

Why I’ll be voting for Jessica Farrar in HD148

I see Marc Campos has picked a side in the upcoming primary fight between State Rep. Jessica Farrar and her opponent.

Commentary’s friend Jose Medrano is running for State Representative, District 148 in the Dem Primary. Jessica Farrar is the incumbent. Commentary votes in District 148. Jose used to work for Jessica. The conspiracy folks think Commentary is behind this race. Sorry pals. Jose has his own pros and friends involved. I like Jose, will vote for him, and tell others to support him because I think he would make a great public official.

Well that’s nice, but speaking as someone else who votes in District 148, I say we already have a great public official serving us, one with a proven track record of doing the right thing. The single most important issue for any legislator or legislative candidate going into 2009 will be where they stand on House Speaker Tom Craddick and his notion of a divine right of Speakers. I know exactly where Jessica Farrar stands on this, because she’s been voting against Craddick since 2005, back before most people realized how important it was to do so. She paid a price for it, too. Maybe her opponent will oppose Craddick, as all Democrats (and most Republicans) should. But why should I wonder about that when I have certainty with Farrar? I’ll stick with the person who has demonstrated her courage when it counted.

More than that, Jessica Farrar represents my beliefs as well as any member of the House. I thought she had a great session this past year, standing up time and again for things that needed a champion. She fought for the HPV vaccine, after many of her colleagues suddenly and temporarily became concerned with the Governor overreaching his powers and used that as an excuse to demagogue against women’s health. She was a leader in the fight against a genuine and pernicious power grab by the Governor on Homeland Security. She fought for clean air. On issue after issue, she voted the way I would have voted, and was up front about it.

Now, maybe Farrar’s primary opponent believes the same things she does, and maybe he doesn’t. If he doesn’t, then for sure I wouldn’t vote for him. But even if he does, why would I want to replace someone who’s been doing a good job and voting the way I like for as long as Jessica Farrar has? Why wouldn’t I want to keep the person who’s been there and done that and has the record to prove it? I can’t think of any reason at all. There’s plenty of need and room for change in the Texas Legislature, but I want to change the parts that don’t work. Jessica Farrar represents what does work. She belongs in the Lege, and I intend to help keep her there.

The choice could not be clearer. If you live in HD148, I hope you’ll make a point of voting in the Democratic primary, and then again in the November general, for State Rep. Jessica Farrar. Thanks very much.

Filing news: Who is Joel Redmond?

According to the latest list of candidates I’ve seen from the HCDP, Joel Redmond has made his official filing for HD144. Given how that open-seat race is at or near the top of the list of takeover targets by both the Democrats and the pro-Craddick Republicans, I’m more than a little surprised to have heard so little about any of the candidates who have announced so far. I’ve seen more written about Amber Moon, who may or may not actually be running, than I have about Redmond or any of the three Republican candidates who have actually filed. I haven’t gotten so much as a press release on Redmond, which is frankly rather amazing considering the amount of campaign-related mail I get for other candidates; I just got one from a candidate for Austin City Council, for crying out loud. I hope this just means he doesn’t have a formal operation up and running yet and not that he’s going to be this quiet about his business going forward. We’ll see.

Elsewhere in Houston, State Rep. Ellen Cohen made her filing for re-election official. Still no word of an opponent for her. Unless there’s a self-funder lying in wait somewhere (very quietly), it looks like she’ll be getting a pass this year. Other incumbents who have filed as of yesterday: Reps. Scott Hochberg, Kevin Bailey (who has a primary challenge from Armando Walle), Senfronia Thompson, Ana Hernandez, Borris Miles (who may have a rematch against Al Edwards), Garnet Coleman, Jessica Farrar, and State Sen. Mario Gallegos.

Meanwhile, in other State Rep news, two Republicans so far have filed to run for HD52, left open by Mike Krusee’s retirement. Democrat Diana Maldonado is already in this race, and already generating positive buzz.

Two Harris County Constables so far will face primary challenges. Constable Ken Jones in Precinct 3 will run against William “Bill” Norwood, while Constable May Walker, the first female and the first African American female constable in Harris County, will be opposed by Curtis Thompson. I know nothing about these gentlemen other than the fact of their candidacies.

Finally, a little shuffling around in the District Court races. Ashish Mahendru, who’s a friend and neighbor of mine, had been running for the 125th District Court (Civil). Last week, a fellow named Kyle Carter, who had originally announced his intent to run for the 215th, thus making that a three-person race with Steve Kirkland and Fred Cook, decided to hop over to the 125th instead. This was not a popular decision, as Mahendru had been recruited by the HCDP Coordinated Campaign Steering Committee to run for that seat and Carter had not been recruited at all; Mahendru is also by all accounts I’ve heard the better candidate. Rather than risk missing out on the chance to be on the ballot in November, Mahendru has now moved to the 334th, where original candidate Susan Strawn has dropped out due to professional constraints. Unfortunately for him, this means Mahendru needs to re-gather petition signatures – you need 250 sigs even if you pay the filing fee. We helped him out at our Lights in the Heights party on Saturday, where he picked up a dozen or so. If you see Ashish somewhere in the next few days, please offer to sign his petition. As for Carter, the word I hear is that he will not have a free shot at the 125th. Stay tuned on that one.

And speaking of Lights in the Heights, a gentleman (whose name now escapes me) who wants to run against Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee in CD18 passed through gathering petition signatures. I wished him luck in the name of democracy, but for obvious reasons declined to sign. I don’t think he did as well at my house as Ashish did, but I was outside setting up luminaria at the time, so I couldn’t say for sure.

Still waiting on the official word for a couple of candidates I’m anticipating. I figure anyone who hasn’t made it official by next Friday will likely wait till the deadline is almost upon us. And I’m still hoping for a surprise in the Court of Criminal Appeals, for which I wholeheartedly endorse what Scott Cobb says.

There are three seats up and Democrats should find strong candidates for all of them. Both Scott Henson at Grits and I have separately asked some people to run, but so far no one has said yes. Now, there are only three weeks left before the filing deadline. We need to find someone before it is too late.

A Democrat can win election to the CCA in 2008 for two main reasons 1) the national political environment is favorable to the Democrats and a winning Democratic presidential candidate could have an impact on lower ballot races and 2) the “laughingstock” reputation of the CCA is likely to cause many editorial boards and other organizations to endorse a well-qualified challenger to the Republican incumbents on the ballot.

[…]

I am writing this post to ask the blogging community to help find good candidates for the CCA. Help us find a practicing lawyer, a law professor, or a judge whom we can interest in running for the CCA.

Please use the comments to suggest people the Texas Democratic Party should contact about running for the court. Or email names to me at scottcobb99 (at) gmail.com and I will pass them along to the state party.

Please, somebody step up. This really is important.

Border fence protest in McAllen

May there be many more of these, until the message gets through that the border fence is a wasteful and destructive idea.

City business leaders had an unorthodox plan today to get residents to attend a federally sponsored town meeting on the planned fence along the U.S.-Mexico border: They sponsored a protest rally.

The McAllen Chamber of Commerce planned a “No Border Wall Rally” Tuesday to coincide with the open house, one of several ways residents can comment on the government’s environmental impact statement. The environmental report assesses the effects of fence construction along 70 miles of border in the Rio Grande Valley.

Steve Ahlenius, president of the chamber, said community leaders wanted a crowd at the open house to testify and to “lay a foundation” that residents oppose the fence in case residents or city officials decide to sue the government over the fence.

The heavily populated Rio Grande Valley has been the center of opposition to the planned fence, a combination of steel fence and “virtual fencing” designed to stop illegal immigration and smuggling. But landowners and government officials complain the fence will cut them off from the Rio Grande, a historically significant waterway to Texas and the only source of fresh water in the region for livestock and crops. They also say it will do little to stop illegal immigration and smuggling and essentially cede miles of riverfront land to Mexico.

Starr County will have its hearing on Thursday.

The meeting will be held from 4:30 p.m.-8 p.m. on Dec. 13 at the VFW Post No. 08526 in Rio Grande City. DHS is hosting similar “open house” meetings in McAllen on Dec. 11 and Brownsville on Dec. 12.

Members of Texas’ congressional delegation were asked to help persuade DHS to concede the public hearing. Starr County Judge Eloy Vela, Rio Grande City Mayor Kevin Hiles and Roma Mayor Roy Ybarra asked U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, to assist.

“DHS has agreed to hold a public hearing for Starr County,” Cuellar told the Guardian [last] Wednesday.

Let’s hope they do what McAllen did. And Cameron County will have its day as well.

[Brownsville] city officials will vote today on whether to enter into an agreement with McAllen officials to hire Houston attorney Jim Blackburn and associates to represent the entities in litigation regarding the border fence. Blackburn specializes in environmental law.

City Manager Charlie Cabler said the city would be joining other cities along the border in showing their opposition to construction of the fence and offering alternative ways in which to protect the border.

Alternatives include adding more U.S. Border Patrol agents, technology and the construction of a weir or building up of the current levee system, Cabler said.

“We want an opportunity to discuss and sit down and give ideas are how this should be addressed…instead of fencing in and fencing out some of our properties,” Cabler said.

Today’s votes come on the eve of Wednesday’s “open house” in Brownsville in which the Department of Homeland Security will address the draft Environmental Impact Statement and take public comments. The first open house is today at the McAllen Convention Center. The second is at the Brownsville Events Center from 4:30 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday.

Brownsville Mayor Pat Ahumada Jr. plans to hold an anti-war protest at the tennis courts outside the Brownsville Events Center where he plans to hold a forum for the community to air their complaints.

Representatives from CASA (Coalicion de Amigos en Solidaridad y Accion) and San Felipe De Jesus Church in Cameron Park are also expected to line the sidewalks leading to the events’ center protesting the wall.

Good luck, y’all. Thanks to South Texas Chisme for the links.

An HCDE smackdown

Remember Michael Wolfe, the Harris County Department of Education trustee who was elected last year and caused a bit of a ruckus for his push to get the department’s headquarters named for his personal hero, Ronald Reagan? I didn’t blog about this silly little contretemps, but you can catch up on it here, here, and here. Anyway, I was recently sent a copy of this fascinating letter (PDF), in which John Sawyer, the County School Superintendant, takes young Mr. Wolfe to task for a variety of things, ranging from his improper requests of HCDE staff to take him on site visits to his general indifference to protocol and his strange work habits. It’s quite the dressing down, and it’s one of the more entertaining government documents I’ve encountered in recent memory. Take a look and see what you think.