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June 15th, 2008:


Part of me is just plain amused to read about the Clayton Williams kerfuffle, in which his infamous “rape is like the weather” joke from the 1990 gubernatorial campaign has caused some embarassment for John McCain, who cancelled a scheduled fundraiser at Williams’ ranch in response. Part of me is sympathetic to Evan Smith’s suggestion that “the statute of limitations on stupidity” might have run out by now, given Williams’ contrition over his remarks. And part of me is just boggled by this:

Williams, 76, has made and lost fortunes in energy, ranching and other businesses over the past half-century, but is perhaps best known for his 1990 Republican race for governor. The Midland oilman’s controversial campaign comments are widely known in Texas, but McCain aides told reporters they were surprised when they learned of them.

“These were obviously incredibly offensive remarks that the campaign was unaware of at the time this event was scheduled,” said spokesman Brian Rogers. “It’s positive that he did apologize at the time, but the comments are nonetheless offensive.”

Was there really nobody on McCain’s team who knew of this event and who knew about Williams and the blowback his name would cause? I realize that this is all part Kabuki dance, and that in general we’d all be better off if the outrage meter could get dialed back a notch or two when dealing with politicians’ supporters, but come on. Anybody who knew anything about Texas political history could have seen this coming a mile away. Putting it another way, the Bush campaign never would have let this happen. Josh Marshall is right about the relative strengths of the McCain and Obama campaigns, based on the toughness of the paths they took to become the nominees. I was as ready as anyone to see the Clinton/Obama fight come to an end. But I can’t deny that it’s made Obama stronger. All things considered, I’d rather be where Obama is than McCain. This is just an example of why.

Huffman in SD17

We have another contender for the SD17 special election.

Republican Joan Huffman, a former felony court judge in Harris County, announced her candidacy in the Nov. 4 election to fill the vacant District 17 state Senate seat once held by Kyle Janek, who resigned.

Huffman joins Houston lawyer Grant Harpold and Houston businessman Austen Furse as declared candidates in the race.

Democrat Chris Bell, the former congressman who lost the 2006 race for governor, is among those who say they are considering running for the legislative seat.

The underlying dynamic of the race is unlikely to change by this. The Rs have three essentially unknown candidates, though Huffman at least can say she has run for and been elected to public office before; the Dems have a candidate with high name ID and decent poll numbers who right now would be a favorite to lead the pack and maybe win outright. It’s not hard to imagine Bell finishing somewhere in the 40s or a smidge over 50%, with Furse, Harpold, and Huffman all getting in the 15-20% range. The entry of a better-known Republican, or Bell deciding against, would obviously change this equation, but that’s how it looks right now.

Update on Vo’s apartments

State Rep. Hubert Vo, who made front-page news earlier this year when it was reported that some apartment complexes he owns were in violation of city electrical and structural standards, has now been certified by the city as being fully compliant on all points.

The inspectors say Vo cooperated in “good faith” with their demands to replace rotting wood, missing balcony railings and exposed wires.

His properties now meet code requirements, said Susan McMillian, an executive staff analyst with the Department of Public Works and Engineering.

Vo, D-Houston, said Friday that he had done more than required, and he pledged to continue working with residents and managers to improve conditions.

“I want people to know that I kept my promise,” he said. “I told the city that I would take care of their concerns, and I worked as quickly as possible to make all the needed repairs.”

The municipal citations at the Courtyard Apartments on Villa de Matel, which alleged eight structural and electrical problems, were issued 10 days after a warning from the city to make repairs.

City officials only had to issue warnings at the other Vo property, the Northpoint Apartments on Lyerly, to get compliance.

Conditions at the Courtyard Apartments came to light when neighbors complained to District I City Councilman James Rodriguez, who called code enforcement officials for an inspection.

Rodriguez said he learned about the ownership after the city’s initial inspection. He added that Vo later asked him to lunch to discuss the issue, and that he was impressed by Vo’s sincerety.

“He gave me his word that he would fix up the property,” the councilman said.

I’m very glad to hear that. As I said before, this is more like the Rep. Hubert Vo that I have come to know over the past four years. I felt confident he’d fix his problems, and I’m glad to see that he did so quickly and thoroughly.

Some background is here, and a statement from Rep. Vo is here. It might have been nice to give the follow up as much prominence in the paper as the original – it’s on page 3 of the Metro section, with a small teaser on the Metro front page – but that’s the way it is. The Chron also did a lot of subsequent reporting on similar problems at other Houston apartment complexes. May those landlords act as quickly and as conscientiously as Rep. Vo did.

MLB looking at instant replay

Wow. This surprises me.

Instant replay might be coming to Major League Baseball in an instant.

Moving faster than expected and coming after a rash of blown calls, baseball wants to put replay into effect by August for home run disputes in hopes of fine-tuning the system by the playoffs.

MLB and the umpires’ union need to reach agreement before replay can be tried, and the sides have started talking. It was thought replay would get its first look in the Arizona Fall League and then the 2009 World Baseball Classic.


Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB’s executive vice president for baseball operations, is pushing for replay by Aug. 1; Rob Manfred, MLB’s executive vice president of labor relations, suggested Aug. 15.

“It’s all still premature,” MLB spokesman Rich Levin said Friday. “A final decision has not been made.”

As you know, I favor this idea, and I also never thought it might happen this quickly. Good on baseball for being so decisive.

“I don’t think it’s needed at all, to be honest,” Cubs manager Lou Piniella said Friday. “How many times do you see players make errors? Baseball has talked about speeding up the game. It’s all you hear. All of a sudden, they want instant replay? You’re going to have slower games and more restless people in the stands.”

Oh, please. First of all, if we’re only talking about home run calls, then very few games will be affected. And second, given the amount of times that managers like Lou Piniella spend arguing these calls when they occur, it’s not at all clear that checking a replay would slow things down any more. Admittedly, seeing Piniella blow a gasket is more entertaining; perhaps each stadium can keep a highlight reel of such antics to play on their scoreboards whenever a call is under review.

Anyway. I applaud the Lords of Baseball for giving this serious consideration. May they be as forward-thinking when the technology to accurately and consistently call balls and strikes arrives on the scene.

Demand for mass transit growing

I alluded to this in the post on the new commuter rail plans here, but this MSNBC article makes it clear that demand for transit is booming across the country as gas prices rise.

Mass transit ridership is at its highest point in 50 years, according to research by the American Public Transportation Association. For many riders, it just got too expensive to drive.

“I do it to save gas whenever I can,” said Cody Nunez, a student at Pasco High School in Kennewick, Wash. “I don’t want to be paying $50 every week.”


The story is the same everywhere: In Seattle, commuter rail ridership recorded the biggest jump in the nation during the first quarter, with 28 percent more riders than during the same time last year. Ridership in Harrisburg, Pa., rose 17 percent. In Oakland, Calif., it rose 15.8 percent.

Nationwide, Americans took 2.6 billion bus, subway, commuter rail and light rail trips in the first three months of the year, 85 million more than in the same period in 2007, the American Public Transportation Association said. But it’s not clear that the nation’s transit systems are able to handle the load.

While many major cities cities have invested heavily in mass transit over the past 15 years, many more have not. Now that people are demanding service, there isn’t the infrastructure to provide it.

“We’re seeing it in a lot of other metropolitan areas where there just [aren’t] viable transit options — places like Indianapolis, Orlando or Raleigh,” said Robert Puentes, a transportation and urban planning scholar with the Brookings Institution, a public policy association in Washington. “They haven’t put the money into it. They haven’t put the resources into it.”

Even those big cities with robust systems are struggling, Puentes said.

“There are major challenges in most of the older, established transit systems, places like New York or Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston — places that are really starting to show their age,” he said.

Houston is in the position of expanding its transit system, thanks to the commuter rail proposals and the Metro Solutions plan. It’s a shame more of these pieces aren’t already in place, but at least they’re on their way, and hopefully more will come as Metro moves to the next phase beyond the 2012 plan.

Mass transit is supposed to get cars off the road, and it’s working: For the first time since 1980, the number of miles driven fell last year, from 3.014 trillion to 3.003 trillion, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The drop continued by another 2.3 percent in the first quarter of this year, the FHA said.

Meanwhile, 61 percent of drivers said in a poll by Quinnipiac University last month that they had cut back significantly on how much they drove because of high gas prices.

In the San Francisco Bay area, one of the most congested regions in the country, traffic has decreased while ridership on Bay Area Rapid Transit, ferries and buses has risen, said Bijan Sartipi, a district director for California Transportation Department.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to stop thinking in terms of transit as a way to ease traffic congestion, and to start thinking of it as a genuine alternative to driving and a car-based lifestyle. People flocked to the far-flung suburbs and put up with long commutes and the need to drive everywhere for everything in part because it made economic sense: Even with the cost of all that driving factored in, the cheaper housing cost made it worthwhile. But with $4-per-gallon gas, that equation gets upended. The monthly cost of an automobile, even one that’s paid off, can be several hundred dollars; it’s certainly a lot more now than it was as little as a year ago. How much more mortgage could you afford if you had one less vehicle to gas, insure, and maintain? I’m guessing that the more-expensive real estate closer in would start to look a lot better to people if it meant they could downsize their garages.

Now of course, that isn’t going to be a truly viable option for most people right now, because Houston’s transit infrastructure is still lacking. But it will be more robust in five years’ time, and it can be even more so in another five years. The transition may be painful, but doing the same old thing and hoping gas prices come down isn’t going to help. The problem isn’t going away.

There are plenty of challenges for the meantime:

[I]ncreased ridership means higher costs for transit systems. That’s because it takes more fuel to move more passengers, and transit systems aren’t getting a break at the pump.

Wichita Transit in Kansas, which has seen a 22 percent increase in ridership, has raised its weekly fuel purchase to 8,000 gallons. One recent delivery cost 30 cents a gallon more than it had the week before, officials said.

That caused the bus service to ask the city council for $210,000 from a reserve fund, money it said was needed to keep buses on the street until July.

“The fuel prices have gone up so dramatically and drastically that even the dramatic increase in ridership is not making up as far as our fuel debt is concerned and our ability to purchase fuel,” said Michael Vinson, the system’s acting director.

Metro is in good shape for diesel fuel prices this fiscal year, but after that it gets ugly.

It all adds up to a conundrum for government officials — high fuel prices send passengers to mass transit but drive down tax revenue and strain fuel budgets.

“With gas at this level, rail and public transit has got to be a bigger and bigger part of our future,” Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine said.

Answers aren’t expected any time soon, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said. He added:

“We need a dramatically different energy policy for our country, and that’s not going to happen overnight.”

Well, Step One would be to redirect some federal highway funds to transit projects. The need is there and the trend is clear. And given that there are clear differences in policy ideas on this issue between the Presidential candidates, there’s at least a good chance we’ll see a change of direction soon (thanks to MOMocrats for the link). Ryan Avent has more.