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July 27th, 2008:

More on Obama and the downballot races

Here’s another story about the campaign Barack Obama will be running in Texas, which is more about getting downballot Democratic candidates elected than it is about Obama carrying the state. It doesn’t break any new ground, but it does give an interesting insight into the Republican view of the strategy.

A lot of the strategy is about voter excitement. Consultants from both parties admit that Democrats are generally more excited about the presidential race than Republicans. And, they said, down-ballot races may actually help boost turnout in the presidential contest.

Democrats in Texas “are very much energized, pretty much across the state,” said Democratic political consultant Dan McClung of Houston. “It’s not just national politics. It’s state politics and county politics that have Democrats energized.”

Texas Republican Party Political Director Hans Klingler said fights over partisan control of Harris and Dallas counties are as exciting for party activists as the presidential contest.

“As important as to what happens at the presidential races at the top of the ticket is what the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are going to do at the bottom-of-the-ticket races at the courthouse level,” Klingler said.

Republican pollster Mike Baselice believes Obama’s plans to put 15 people in Texas — a state with 19 expensive media markets — is a waste of money for his campaign.

“There’s dumb and real dumb and invading Russia,” Baselice said. “If you’re a Democrat, you don’t want to get caught in a land war in Texas, when you’ve got all those states in the Midwest to win.”

Baselice said the problem for Republicans is not what Obama is going to do but a belief by GOP voters that the nation is on the wrong track.

“Half, if not more than half, the Republicans think the country is off-track. That is more concern to me than Obama sending 15 people to the state,” Baselice said.

Is it just me, or does anyone else think Baselice is protesting a wee bit too much? Obama himself is a big part of the reason for the enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans. It’s not just that Democrats see a great chance to take back the White House, not to mention the Texas House and all the offices in Harris County, it’s that they see it happening with a candidate that’s broadly acceptable to them, unlike the Republicans and John McCain. The contrast between the two, the forward-looking nature of Obama’s candidacy versus the stuck-in-the-past McCain, it all contributes to that higher level of excitement. And the best way to build on that is for Obama himself to make it clear that Texas matters, to him and to Democrats everywhere. That’s why those staffers matter, whatever it is they wind up doing. It’s a tangible sign that Texas is being taken seriously, and I believe it will have a payoff at the end.

Now of course, there’s plenty more that can be done. It would be nice if Obama himself made a trip here for a real campaign event or two, and not just for money-sucking fundraisers. Going overseas was great, and lent a ton of stature to the man and his campaign, but we have more voters here than they do there. If that’s too much to ask, then send some high-profile surrogates, like Henry Cisneros, or the Clintons. The publicity alone will be worth the investment in time and effort. How about it?

On a tangential note, the most interesting thing to me in the sidebar piece about what races are hot is the omission of any mention of HD134, where State Rep. Ellen Cohen will run for re-election for the first time against a fellow named Joe Agris. There was a time when some experts thought this would be a top-tier battle. Look at what Paul Burka wrote back in January:

Agris was a close friend of the late Marvin Zindler and wrote an authorized biography of the flamboyant Houston newsman best known for closing down the La Grange “chicken ranch”. In 2004, after Saddam Hussein had imprisoned a group of Iraqi businessmen for trading in dollars and then had their right hands amputated, Agris and Zindler arranged for seven of the victims to come to Houston and receive prosthetic hands. This is a real race.

Not so much, it would seem. So far, Agris has raised almost no money, with Cohen having nearly 100 times as much cash on hand. There’s no buzz about this race, no indication that Agris is doing anything resembling the massive door-to-door campaign Cohen ran in 2006 when she ousted Martha Wong. I hesitate to say that the Republicans have written this one off, since Agris could still drop a chunk of his own money on TV ads if he wanted to. But not including it in a list of Republican opportunity districts is very telling, and more than a little amazing given that most Republicans on the ballot in 2006 won a majority of the votes there.

A look ahead to the Council of the future

Carolyn Feibel consults her crystal ball to see what City Council might look like after the 2009 election.

The mayor’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Terence Fontaine, has expressed interest in the At-Large 4 seat. That’s the seat occupied by Ron Green, who has his eyes on the Controller’s office, and is term-limited anyway.

Fontaine is a nuts-and-bolts guy who analyzes city processes, looking for ways to save money. He’s analyzed the fleet vehicles and created a plan for replacement. He knows the ins and outs of fuel usage and tire disposal.

“Six years is not enough time to get it all done,” Fontaine said, referring to his time on White’s team. “I want to continue to find ways of saving taxpayers money.”


Also sending out trial balloons: Deputy Fire Chief Fernando Herrera, for At-Large Seat 1, and two lawyers for At-Large 4: Brian P. Cweren and George Hittner.

Cweren and Hittner previously faced off during a race for the District C seat in 2005, but Anne Clutterbuck prevailed in a crowded field.

Cweren circulated an email about his potential interest in At Large #4 a week or so ago. He finished fifth in that crowded 2005 election with 14% of the vote; Clutterbuck led the first go-round with 20%. I don’t think he was very well known, almost certainly not as well as some of his opponents, so that wasn’t a bad showing. Still, it’s a long way to go from 3500 votes in a district race to an At Large position, especially when there’s going to be a big-dollar Mayoral race at the top of the ticket. He’ll need to do some heavy fundraising, for which I’d give folks like Fontaine and Hittner the early edge. On the other hand, anyone currently thinking about running for At Large #4 had better register all their relevant domain names now, as Clutterbuck can testify.

I don’t know much about Fontaine, but anyone from Mayor White’s staff is going to be a contender in a citywide race. As for Hittner, he tried to outflank Clutterbuck on the right in the 2005 runoff, and lost by a wide margin. I think it will be difficult for anyone running as a conservative Republican to get elected in an At Large race. Perhaps he’ll try a different tack this time around.

Two things I can add to this story: One, since someone in the comments on that post asked about District H, which I hope will be vacant after Adrian Garcia gets elected Sheriff, I am aware of a person who has been making the rounds as a potential candidate for that seat. I don’t know if that person is ready to speak about it publicly yet, so I’ll leave it at that. If I get any feedback from that person, I’ll say so.

Two, on a slightly different note, there have been rumblings for awhile now about a challenge to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee in CD18 because of her steadfast support of Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Presidential Primary. Vince had reported on a rumor of a write-in opponent for her this year. I doubt that will happen, but apparently District B City Council Member Jarvis Johnson is putting pieces in place for a primary challenge in 2010. I kind of think that any lingering emotion over the Clinto/Obama primary and who supported who will dissipate after the election in the likely event Obama wins. It’s not like Rep. Jackson Lee is a puma, after all. With all due respect to CM Johnson, I like the way Rep. Jackson Lee votes and will be happy to vote for her in March of 2010.

So that’s what I’ve been hearing. Anyone else have something to add to this?

An alternate suggestion for Kirby

neoHouston wades into the debate over Kirby Drive and its doomed trees and suggests a different approach to improving mobility in the affected area.

The problem with Kirby Drive is that it is the only North/South connector through what has become a very dense, mixed-use area. Unsurprisingly, it’s a bit of a monster. The street is packed all the time. However, the bottleneck zone is pretty small, just the most intensely developed area along Upper Kirby, roughly from Westheimer down to Bissonnet. So, while the road is busy all day, it never really stops moving.

The problem with this particular stretch of road is that you have tons of users from the nearby neighborhoods who need to get to and from their shopping, dining etc who have no choice but to use Kirby, and they clash with the many office workers who come in from 59, and also motorists from that neck of the woods who would like to use Kirby -> Allen Parkway as an alternate route into Downtown.

If you could remove just one small portion of these trips, you’d significantly improve the flow of the road. So how do you do that?

The answer is the network. Kirby is only so packed because it is the ONLY through street. But, incredibly, there are three parallel streets that almost make the connection.

Rather than spending all that money to tear up and rebuild Kirby, causing an absolute traffic nightmare that will undoubtedly put many of the smaller local shops that make that strip so unique under extreme stress, if not out of business all together, the City and the TIRZ should be investing in completing the network of local streets to support Kirby first.

I think there’s a lot of merit to this, though I don’t know if there’s any way to get any of it done. Basically, by extending Lake, Argonne, and Revere Streets, you allow for back-door access to businesses and residences along Kirby, and take some of the short-hop driving pressure off the main road. Looking at the maps of the area provided, this makes a lot of sense. Take a look and see what you think.

The main objection is likely to come from the folks who live along these streets and who I’d venture to guess consider their lack of continuity to be a feature and not a bug. It’s the same reason why Morningside, which not too long ago was a viable alternate route to Shepherd/Greenbriar in the Rice area, is now littered with speed bumps. The residents of that neghborhood didn’t want the cut-through traffic, and I won’t be surprised if the residents of Upper Kirby feel the same way. But it can’t hurt to broach the subject, so here we are.

Even if this were to happen, it’s still not a complete solution for the area, since none of those side roads goes through 59, meaning that the stretch of Kirby between 59 and Bissonnet (which has its own unique problems these days, thanks to some faulty surveying work) would still be on its own. But it would be an improvement on what we’ve got. What do you think?

Run, don’t walk

Race officials with the 2009 Chevron Houston Marathon and Aramco Houston Half Marathon have officially uninvited walkers from participating next year.

For years, they have more or less looked the other way when hundreds of walkers — most of them registered participants — showed up as early as 5 a.m. to get under way before the official 7 a.m. start so they could finish the event before the course closed six hours later.

No more.

“The marathon is going in a new direction to formally ask that walkers who cannot complete our race in the stated time limits — or cannot start at 7 a.m. — seek a race with more lenient time standards,” managing director Steven Karpas said.

Karpas said safety was the primary reason the marathon decided to “step up its management” of the situation.

“We have become increasingly concerned at the hundreds of walkers who choose to risk their lives and the lives of others by crossing the viaduct at 5 a.m., unchaperoned, with no security.”

“Our leaders have had to dodge packs of walkers who do not stay to the side of the road,” he said. “That’s embarrassing. With our growth (18,000 participants) we simply cannot allow for packs of walkers to impede the flow of thousands of runners.

“Ultimately, it’s a recipe for disaster.”


The event had a five-hour cutoff from its first year in 1972 through 1996. In 1997, it increased to 5½ hours, then became six hours in 2003.

But even with a six-hour limit, many of USA Fit’s 600 walkers in the area would be unable to finish the events in the specified times — which require a pace of 13:45 minutes per mile — said Houston Fit organizer Patty Chesnick.

“Since our inception 19 years ago, USA FIT/Houston Fit has consistently pushed for longer official finish times and is willing to work with any race organizers to accomplish this objective,” she said

“While this presents challenges, not the least of which is safety and additional expense, we feel that it is important to work together to overcome these challenges in order to allow participation by as many athletes as possible.”

Said Karpas: “It’s a bigger picture than just extending the time limit. The bigger picture is Metro’s light rail being closed, homeowners enduring the inconvenience, as well as church groups and businesses. It’s emergency groups and city services that are being impacted.

“We are unable to compromise. Everything is designed to accommodate the runners.”

I sympathize with the Marathon here. Their audience is the runners, and they have to do this race without causing too much disruption in the city. The walkers do have other options. Maybe going forward, for future races, one of those options can be for them to pay extra fees to help cover the cost of street closures and race security for two more hours. Doing so up front would still be preferable, as it would minimize the outages for the general population. Finding people willing to be there for a 5 AM start, that’s their problem.

(You could turn this into a nice little math problem, too. “John starts the marathon at 5 AM, walking at a speed of 3.5 MPH. Dave starts the marathon at 7 AM, running at a speed of 12 MPH. At what point in the race will Dave pass John? You must show all work to receive full marks. Partial credit will be awarded as deemed appropriate.”)