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December 18th, 2007:

Barrett Wins! Republican Leadership Rejected

In an indictment of Craddick’s leadership, House District 97 was won today by Democrat Dan Barrett, in the special election to fill an unexpired term that opened up when Republican Anna Mowery resigned in August.

Final:

Barrett 52.2%, 5365 votes
Shelton 47.8%, 4913 votes

Barrett won the early vote 55-45%.

Barrett was clear all along that he was running against the corrupt Republican leadership in the House – Craddick and his lieutenants.

Fort Worth voters clearly think it’s time for a change. Where will the next five come from?

If Fort Worth voters have this much good sense, John Cornyn might want to look over his shoulder.

Congrats to Dan Barrett and everyone on the ground who made this happen!

UPDATE: Here’s the Star-Telegram story. One other portent from this race:

Shelton rarely spoke about health care as he campaigned, but relentlessly focused on illegal immigration. Shelton repeatedly said that was the issue Republican voters in the district were most interested in.

Sweet. Y’all keep running on that, Republicans. We’ll keep winning.

UPDATE: For the ultimate schdenfreudistic experience, read this DMN overview of the race from Sunday.

The west Tarrant County district has become a proving ground for House Speaker Tom Craddick. It hosts the first election since the divisive legislative session ended in May and, therefore, has become a bellwether for what’s to come next year.

The race pitting Democrat Dan Barrett against Republican Mark Shelton has been replete with subversive political tricks, lots of cash and surprising outcomes.

The fact that Mr. Craddick was a specter in the race – appearing at fundraisers, asking candidates to sign pledge cards and keeping a close eye on the election through operatives in Fort Worth – speaks volumes about what the Midland Republican has at stake in the runoff.

[…]

The special election was rife with intrigue early on, culminating with an Election Day attack on GOP candidate Bob Leonard in the Nov. 6 balloting to whittle seven candidates down to two.

Local operatives were advising the speaker and other observers that Mr. Leonard, who refused to commit to Mr. Craddick, was the presumed front-runner and that the perceived “Craddick guy,” Craig Goldman, was falling behind.

That morning, mysterious “robo-calls” went out to voters telling them to vote against Mr. Leonard. Suddenly, the guy who was on no one’s radar – Mr. Shelton – stunned pundits and operatives and grabbed a runoff spot.

Now the heir apparent in the longtime GOP district, Mr. Shelton formalized his support of Mr. Craddick by signing a pledge card and became the new darling of the Republican leadership – after battling virtually alone to get to the runoff, with no organized fundraisers and no major endorsements outside the medical community.

The party is hosting phone banks, and money-raising has picked up, his coffers landing big contributions from the likes of homebuilder Bob Perry in Houston and AT&T, longtime allies of the speaker.

Mr. Craddick himself recently appeared at a Shelton fundraiser in Austin.

“Now it’s no longer just me,” Mr. Shelton said. “The Republicans in the Texas House and Senate, they’re all behind me. We have help and support behind me that I never had before.”

Observers say the speaker’s involvement in the race proves that he’s not taking any chances- and that a mere win won’t be good enough. He needs a commanding victory by his candidate to reinforce confidence in his power.

If this were any sweeter, I’d need to take an insulin shot.

Filing news: Michael Skelly in CD07

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been waiting on an announcement in CD07. Today is the day for that announcement.

Wind-energy executive Michael Skelly today unveiled his Democratic candidacy against U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, and indicated he will pour a significant chunk of his money into the race for the conservative 7th District.

Skelly, of West University Place, is chief development officer for Horizon Wind, which investor Michael Zilkha of Houston and his father, Selim, bought about seven years ago for $6 million. This year a Portuguese utility company bought the firm for about $2.2 billion.

Skelly, brought to the United States as a child after being born to Irish parents in England, would not discuss how much money he will put into his campaign. Candidates can spend an unlimited amount on their own behalf, and in past Houston-area campaigns some of have laid out more than $3 million to get elected.

Funding aside, Skelly, 46, said the district deserves to be represented by a newcomer with business experience in the crucial realm of energy instead of what he called a career politician interested in fighting partisan battles.

Culberson, he said, has “never met a problem he couldn’t make worse.” Skelly said the congressman has failed to work with local government officials to help solve mass transit problems, for example.

Skelly will make for an interesting candidate in this district. He’s a businessman with a background in energy, and should be able to run as a technocrat, which I think will be appealing to the mostly well-educated constituency in CD07. Being well-funded won’t hurt, either, though of course one could have said the same thing about Peter Wareing in 2000. I don’t think it’ll be too hard to be a better candidate than Wareing was, however.

At this time, I don’t know what Jim Henley’s status is. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Henley and what he accomplished in 2006. He ran an efficient, issues-oriented grassroots campaign last year, and was a top Democratic performer in CD07. What I’m looking for this year is for someone to build on what Henley accomplished. That could be Henley, that could be Skelly, and that could be someone else, but that’s what I’m looking for. We’ll see how it plays out.

I’ve got Skelly’s press release beneath the fold. Expect to hear a lot more about him in the coming weeks.

(more…)

Looking forward to 2008: Christof Spieler

(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 Christof Spieler.)

In the world of transportation, 2008 will be familiar to anyone who experienced 2007. There will be light rail controversies, real or imagined. The Katy Freeway will still be under construction. The Heights and the Near North Side will continue to fight TxDOT on I-45. METRO will roll out the Q Card – again. And lots of people will think that they know a better way to operate Downtown traffic lights.

But the most important moment in Houston transportation in 2008 will likely be at the ballot box. And of all the races that matter – the President, the Senate and the House, the state legislature – perhaps the most important for our location transportation picture will be the county judge.

The county doesn’t get a lot of attention around here. But it’s a huge player. For every $3 a Houston resident sends to the city, they send $2 to the county (2006 tax rates: 0.645 city, 0.40239 county). That money buys a lot. The county’s yearly transportation budget – the Toll Road Authority, public infrastructure, and commissioners’ road spending – is somewhere around $800 million. The city’s budget is only $70 million; METRO’s current round of light rail expansion averages out to $150 million a year; even TxDOT, at around $800 million a year in the Houston region, doesn’t spend more than the county.

Yet the county doesn’t get nearly the public attention that the city, METRO, or the state do. Why?

The first reason is that the county’s elected officials essentially hold their jobs for life. Each of the four county commissioners (who, along with the County Judge, form the county’s governing body) represents over 950,000 people. That’s more people than live in Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, Alaska, Delaware, or Montana, so 12 U.S. senators – along with every member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Texas Legislature – represent fewer people than a Harris County commissioner. That means it’s very hard to vote a commissioner out of office: unlike a Houston district council member, a commissioner can afford to alienate a civic club or two.

The second reason is that the county commissioners run their own personal fiefdoms. 20% of the county’s budget goes directly to the commissioners, for them to spend more or less as they please. Each commissioner has their own road department and their own parks department. Even beyond that part of the budget, the commissioners tend to determine what happens in their districts. Thus, there are no public debates for the media to cover.

The third – and perhaps the most important – reason is that the people who lose most under the county’s regime are those who pay the least attention. Over half the county’s population is within the city of Houston, and since the county is funded by property taxes, the share of the county’s tax revenues that come from city residents is greater than that. Yet the city doesn’t get half the county’s spending. Some county functions – like the courts and the jail – do in fact benefit everyone in the county. But others don’t. The Harris County sheriff’s department conducts neighborhood patrols, funded by those taxes. But they patrol only outside city limits. Harris County spends $26 million a year on libraries – but none of those are in the city. City residents pay city taxes to fund police, libraries, and parks while their county taxes are going to fund police, library, and parks for others who do not pay city taxes. But when Houston residents complain about high taxes and inadequate services, they tend to complain to the city, not the county.

Back to transportation: the county’s transportation funding, like its parks and its libraries, is spent mostly outside of city limits. It also goes in support of specific agendas. Commissioner Steve Radack, for example, believes that the main purpose of road funding is to promote suburban development:

Without an infusion of bond money, Radack said he may delay building or widening major thoroughfares that would provide access to pasture land where subdivisions could be built, creating more taxpayers to pay for county services, Radack said.

“The more people you have in Harris County paying taxes lessens the burden on those already here,” he said.

To put it another way, in Precinct Three, road money is going not to help the taxpayers who live there already get around, but rather to benefit those who haven’t moved here yet. The county could be spending significant money on transit, sidewalks, livable centers, or dealing with congestion on urban arterials like Westheimer, but it’s not, and those priorities are helping determine how Houston grows. Anytime we spend transportation money, we are engaging in urban planning. The county, as one of the biggest transportation agencies in the area, does a lot of planning. And thus who we elect to county government does a lot to shape our city and our region.

In 2008, two county commissioners – Radack and El Franco Lee – will be up for re-election. It’s not clear whether either will be seriously challenged: there is a perennial candidate who has filed in Precinct 3, but that’s it so far, and the filing deadline is two weeks away. We will also see the most contested county judge race in a long time. Ed Emmett, who was appointed as the county’s chief executive when Robert Eckels quit almost immediately after being re-elected, will face Charles Bacarisse in the Republican primary. The two represent the two wings of the party: Emmett is low key, pro-growth, and pro-business. Bacarisse, by contrast, is ideological and confrontational: he’s campaigning on ending illegal immigration, fighting METRO, and cutting government. Whoever comes out of that primary will face David Mincberg, who hopes to take advantage of changing demographics to retake the county for the Democrats, which might (or might not) mean better cooperation between the city and the county.

Whoever wins these county races will have an extraordinary budget – and thus an extraordinary amount of power – to shape how Houston grows. The fact that the county does not get the attention that the city, METRO, or even TxDOT do simply means that power can be exercised quietly, and that the policies that guide its spending go undebated. That will change only when the taxpayers and voters start asking more questions and demanding better. Will 2008 be the year that happens?

Christof Spieler is an engineer with Matrix Structural, and is on the board of the Citizens Transportation Coalition. He blogs about (mostly) transportation issues at Intermodality.)