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August, 2008:

Lineup set for SD17

There had been talk for a long time that the Republicans had been looking for another candidate to run as a Democrat in the SD17 special election, in hopes of peeling off just enough support from Chris Bell to force a runoff. It looks like they succeeded.

Republican candidates are Houston businessman Austen Furse, Houston lawyer Grant Harpold, former Harris County felony court Judge Joan Huffman and Lake Jackson engineer Ken Sherman.

The Democrats are former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell of Houston and Stephanie E. Simmons, who could not be reached for information about her candidacy.

I am, of course, jumping to a conclusion here. I know nothing about Ms. Simmons, so I can’t say for sure that she’s a stalking horse. But I do know, from multiple sources, that the Republicans were looking for someone they could recruit to run as a Democrat. I do know that the Democrats as a whole are excited about and united behind the Bell candidacy, unlike the Republicans and their deep split over Austen Furse and Joan Huffman. And I do know that anyone who enters a race like this at the last minute with no buzz, no obvious means of support, and no contact with the media, is not someone who’s in it to win it. So while I may be jumping to a conclusion, it’s not exactly a flying leap.

And speaking of that Furse/Huffman split, here’s the latest example, an email exchange between former Harris County Sports Authority chair Jack Rains and candidate Huffman. It’s quite similar in tone and style to the previous exchange between Steven Hotze and State Rep. Dennis Bonnen. I’ll just note that I’m puzzled by Rains’ accusation that State Sen. John Whitmire is soliciting support for Huffman. Whitmire, along with Sens. Mario Gallegos, Rodney Ellis, and Kirk Watson, is hosting a big fundraiser for Bell this Thursday, September 4 – you can buy a ticket for it via ActBlue. But then Rains always was a blowhard, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s just making stuff up. I’m happy for him to keep this up, though. The more division now, the less likely the Republicans would win that runoff they’re so desperately trying to engineer.

Some hope for New Orleans

One of the nasty things about living near the Gulf of Mexico is the conundrum one faces when a hurricane comes this way. While fervently hoping that said storm will not hit your hometown and maybe force you and your family to flee before it, you are acutely aware that you are rooting for it to wreak its havoc and devastation on somebody else. You wind up expressing a lot of hope for the hurricane to be less than advertised, as well as a lot of sympathy for those who will feel its fury, and walk away carrying an odd mixture of dread, relief, and guilt. Let’s just say that I don’t enjoy the summertime the way I used to any more.

All those feelings are magnified now when the cone of uncertainty has New Orleans as its bullseye. Which is one of many reasons I’m grateful and hopeful that SciGuy is right, and that New Orleans may be spared the worst of it. Does anybody know a good wind shear dance?

To everyone who may be in Hurricane Gustav’s path, stay safe and know we’ve all got you in our thoughts and prayers. Here’s some useful information for those who may need assistance. Let’s be ready to help as soon as we can.

Vote again for LJD

Here’s another opportunity to show some support for Larry Joe Doherty in CD10 and bring a little money back into Texas.

Today’s the first day of a week-long Blue America contest, I’d like to invite you to participate in.

Some of our candidates have been endorsed by the DCCC’s Red to Blue program, which makes it easier for them to access institutional Democratic money– big donors, labor unions, single-issue groups, incumbents, etc. And some haven’t.

Blue America wants to spotlight nine of our House endorsees this week who may eventually wind up in the program but who need campaign cash to compete effectively now.


We’re counting votes at a just launched new ActBlue contest page. Whether you donate a dollar or $20 or $2,000 to the candidate of your choice, it counts as one vote– although you can certainly vote for as many candidates as you’d like. The candidate who gets the most votes gets a $5,000 Blue America check.

The winner will be announced on Saturday, September 6th. Vote!

Please give Larry Joe a hand if you can. Thanks very much.

Final judgment against Farmers Branch

That headline sounds more apocalyptic than I intend for it to be, but it’s just a reference to the fact that U.S. District Court Judge Sam Lindsay entered a final judgment striking down Ordinance 2903, the law in Farmers Branch that required landlords to verify a potential renters residency status before renting a house or apartment to them. He had previously issued a permanent injunction against Ordinance 2903 in May.

[Judge Lindsay’s] action triggered the 15-day countdown to the city’s enactment of the newer version, Ordinance, 2952. [Farmers Branch attorney Michael] Jung said the new ordinance is scheduled to take effect Sept. 13.

Ordinance 2952 contains revisions that the city made in an attempt to answer legal challenges to Ordinance 2903. But, like the earlier version, Ordinance 2952 is expected to draw a prompt legal challenge. And Judge Lindsay signaled in May that he would be inclined to strike it down, too.

“The new ordinance is yet another attempt to circumvent the court’s prior rulings and further an agenda that runs afoul of the United States Constitution,” he said at the time.

But of course that won’t stop them from going ahead with this charade and wasting however much more money in doing so. On the other hand, since the guy who pushed through these laws was elected Mayor by a wide margin this year, apparently the people there approve of using their tax moneys for this folly. So much for good policy being good politics.

One more thing:

Ordinance 2952, by contrast, would require prospective renters to pay $5 to the city and declare their citizenship or legal U.S. residency to obtain a license to rent a house or apartment.

Is it just me, or does that sound like a tax on apartment renters to you? I thought people who called themselves “conservative” opposed that sort of thing. Guess it’s different if the tax doesn’t apply to you.

Good news and bad news for bike riders

The good news:

After nearly a decade of delays, construction on a bike-and-hike trail from the Heights to downtown Houston is to begin in September, expanding area residents’ recreational opportunities and providing them an alternative mode of transportation.

The MKT/SP Trail is a Rails-to-Trails conversion project that will provide a 10-mile-wide multi-use trail stretching 4.62 miles along the old Missouri, Kansas, Texas Southern Pacific railroad corridor, connecting to downtown destinations.

It will run from Nicholson at 26th Street to Seventh Street, and from Shepherd along Seventh Street to Spring Street, ending at Hogan Street and Interstate 45 under White Oak Bayou.

There it will connect to the existing Heritage Corridor West Trail that leads to the University of Houston and other downtown destinations and bikeways, said Alvin Wright, spokesman for the city’s Public Works Department.

The project of the Texas Department of Transportation and city’s Bikeway Program is expected to take about 18 months to complete and cost an estimated $5.1 million.

I’ve never been a bike rider, at least not since I was a kid. But with Olivia talking about wanting a real bike, which she may get for Christmas, I’ll follow suit so I can ride with her. I look forward to checking this out some day.

The bad news comes courtesy of bike aficionado Peter Wang, via email, about a step backwards for bike riders on the west side of town. I’ve reprinted his email beneath the fold, so click on to check it out.


One banana, two banana, three banana, four

Via Sandra, I see that one of my childhood TV staples, the Banana Splits, are on their way back to the small screen. Those of you who are children of the 70s will cheer or shudder as the case may be. Those of you who are too young to remember this foolishness, I recommend watching the video at Sandra’s post. And for those of you who now have their theme song permanently wedged into your brain, I offer my sincere apologies.

Weekend link dump for August 30

These blogs were made for linking, that’s what they’re gonna do…

Obama-McGarry ’08. It’s more real than you might think.

Texas Criminal Justice By The Numbers.

Obama and economic clarity. Put simply, don’t confuse selling with installing.

The worst owners in the NFL, via Ta-Nehisi Coates. You will be pleased and not very surprised to learn that Bob McNair is not on the list.

The chicken prank.

Calculus is craptastic.

The Bush Presidency: The first business cycle during which median household income in America falls from peak to peak.

Catblogging, Bloggess-style.

What does John McCain have in common with Pamela Anderson and Dr. Phil?

Score one for the nudists.

Charles Barkley is making sense.

Too close for comfort

Don’t know what I’d do without SciGuy during hurricane season.

So what’s Gustav up to, anyway?

For starters, it’s now an 80 mph hurricane with a distinct eye and showing signs of further strengthening, as expected. The official forecast track has remained centered upon Louisiana, and has edged only slightly westward, reflecting the most recent model guidance.

Since this afternoon the models have come into somewhat better agreement, with a handful swinging east from Texas and the GFDL coming west from New Orleans. In effect they met in the middle.

Looking at the models now, a lot of them show a southwestern curve that takes Gustav into Texas after plowing into Louisiana. Presumably, it would be a greatly diminished storm by then, at least as far as wind intensity goes, but it could still dump a boatload of rain on areas northeast of here. And it wouldn’t take much of a wobble to more directly threaten us as opposed to New Orleans or central Louisiana. So keep those contingency plans – for evacuating or sheltering in place – at hand.

What we’ve got here is failure to communicate

I’m just speechless.

Poor internal communication and complicated procedures caused a $1.1 billion blunder that forced Texas transportation officials to pull back on construction projects earlier this year, according to an audit released Thursday.

Texas Department of Transportation officials actually discovered the accounting error six months earlier, the report said.

The accounting error occurred when bond proceeds were counted twice when the department developed the fiscal 2008 contract award schedule. As a result, $4.2 billion in planned projects was reduced to $3.1 billion.

This resulted in a reduction of $161 million worth of construction and maintenance in the Houston area and a $71.5 million deduction in the San Antonio region.

Auditors faulted department officials for failing to immediately communicate the error to the Texas Transportation Commission, lawmakers and the public.

“Although the department asserts it briefed all commission members individually, no briefing documents, specific dates, or calendars were provided to auditors to verify these briefings,” the report said.

Auditors recommended that TxDOT develop a formal process for reviewing money available for projects, keep commission members informed in open meetings, post updates on the agency’s Web site and alert legislators when funding in their areas change.

At this point, I think we’ve gone beyond a competency problem and have entered the realm of a cultural problem. TxDOT, as it is, is completely dysfunctional and needs to be torn down and rebuilt from the ground up. I don’t have any faith in the agency’s ability to fix itself. Texas Watchdog, the new kid on the blog block, has more.

From the “Some people just shouldn’t get married” files

Your pop culture train wreck of the day.

It probably wasn’t his most important decision ever, but a Harris County judge on Wednesday weighed in on a case that will set celebrity bloggers buzzing: the fate of pop star Hilary Duff’s lavish 21st birthday party.

It’s the latest chapter in a bitter divorce between the parents of pop stars Hilary and Haylie Duff. The 2½-year-old case deteriorated so much that Wednesday’s hearing in family court ended with the young celebrities’ father in handcuffs after Judge Thomas Stansbury found him in contempt of court.

During the tense hearing, Bob and Susan Duff sat on opposite ends of the courtroom, surrounded by posses of lawyers and paralegals. They never spoke and rarely even looked at each other.

Their attorneys exchanged heated words, accusing each other of lying and acting unethically.

“I get very annoyed when he accuses me of lying,” Bob’s lawyer, Robert Piro, shouted at one point, pounding the judge’s bench with his fist.

“Well, then, he should stop lying!” growled Susan’s attorney, Marshall Davis Brown Jr.

I just want to take a minute here and say Thank You to my parents, who recently celebrated their 44th anniversary, for not being anything like Bob and Susan Duff. That’s pretty much all I wanted to say about this.

More thoughts on Palin

I don’t spend a whole lot of time writing about national elections, as there are so many other fine sources for that analysis, and I don’t intend to spend too much time on today’s Presidential race news. But I do have a few thoughts to get off my chest, so please bear with me.

– I still can’t get over how after months of criticizing Barack Obama for his alleged “lack of experience”, John McCain goes and picks the greenest Vice Presidential nominee ever, one who had earlier said she didn’t even know what the VP does. (Admittedly, a lot of people would share that thought.) Among other things, what this says to me is that McCain really will say whatever he thinks he has to say to get elected, and if what he’s saying now isn’t helping, he’ll turn around and say the exact opposite shortly thereafter. It’s another flipflop in a long, long line of them for McCain.

– Remember how Obama was supposed to pick a VP that bolstered his weak spots? McCain has done that in spades here. He’s old; Sarah Palin is young. He’s a longtime Beltway insider; she’s literally about as far outside the Beltway (at least geographically) as you can get. He’s awful on issues women care about; she’s a woman. (Who’s as awful as he is on those issues, but hey, it’s a start.) He’s out of touch; I don’t know about Palin, but as a working mother of five children, it’s safe to say she’s more firmly grounded in the realities of life than the guy who doesn’t know how many houses he owns. Not a high bar to clear, I admit, but she does do it.

– Having said all that, I do have to congratulate McCain on successfully changing the topic from Obama’s awesome speech last night. Well played.

– If McCain’s chief objective was to satisfy the right flank of his party, he seems to have done that. I still think they’re deluding themselves about his choice appealing to disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters. I don’t know about you, but what I recall about most Hillary Clinton supporters was that they were for Clinton first and foremost because of her experience, not her gender. Remember “Ready On Day One”? Anyone want to say that about Sarah Palin?

– Beyond that, who knows? She’s got a good personal story, but then so do McCain, Obama, and Joe Biden. She’s a risky choice, but one with upside. I figure either McCain must have really disliked his other options, or he felt he was better served by going for broke. (How many times do you think the phrase “Hail Mary pass” have been uttered or written today?) You just don’t know how she’ll do. And at the end of the day, we’re still talking about the Vice President. People still vote based on the person who gets the top billing, not the co-star.

That’s all I’ve got. What do you think about the Palin choice?


So John McCain has made his choice for Vice President: first-term Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

John McCain tapped little-known Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his vice presidential running mate today in a startling selection on the eve of the Republican National Convention.

In an announcement, the campaign said that Palin, who has been governor less than two years, “has the record of reform and bipartisanship that others can only speak of.”

“Her experience in shaking up the status quo is exactly what is needed in Washington today,” the campaign said.

I guess he’s still trying to woo the so-called PUMAs. I think the pool of unhappy Hillary Clinton supporters is considerably smaller after this week, and after last night, but hey, dream big.

McCain has had months to consider his choice, and has made it clear to reporters that one of his overriding goals was to avoid a situation like the one in 1988, when Dan Quayle was thrown into a national campaign with little preparation.

I’m thinking any time the name “Dan Quayle” appears in the same story as Sarah Palin, it’s not a good thing for her or McCain.

The main thing that strikes me about this is that by choosing a first-term governor of a small state as his running mate, John McCain has essentially conceded the “experience” issue. I have to think that this means he really didn’t like his other choices, because I’m not seeing what this one does for him. Well, okay, she’s probably the first VP candidate to have appeared on the cover of Vogue.So she’s got that going for her. I’m really curious to see the reaction she gets at the Republican convention. What do you think?

Oh, and given the Gustav threat looming in the Gulf, I love Muse’s suggestion that maybe McCain should be announcing his choice to head up FEMA today instead. Maybe we’ll get a twofer once he does the official unveiling.

UPDATE: OK, that Vogue cover is a Photoshop. Guess I missed the issue on the newsstands. But she was in Vogue, just in a more appropriate way.

Go away, Gustav


Gov. Rick Perry issued a disaster declaration Thursday as Tropical Storm Gustav — which is already blamed for as many as 67 deaths in Hispaniola — appeared likely to strengthen into a major hurricane and threaten the Texas Gulf Coast.

“I urge Texans along the coast to monitor this storm closely, heed warnings from their local leaders, and take necessary precautions to protect their families, homes and businesses,” Perry said.

Louisiana and Mississippi also declared states of emergency in advance of the storm.

The National Hurricane Center forecast Gustav to strike anywhere from Texas near Port O’Connor to the Florida Panhandle by early next week, possibly as a Category 3 hurricane.

“These storms sort of have minds of their own,” said Francisco Sanchez, spokesman for the Harris County Office of Emergency Management.

Gustav could become a hurricane as early as today. The storm battered Jamaica on Thursday and is expected to target the Cayman Islands later today.

Half of me is filled with dread and uncertainty about the possibility of the storm coming our way, and the other half is filled with dread and worry for the people of Louisiana and Mississippi, especially the places like New Orleans that took the full brunt of Katrina’s force three years ago. I wish I could wave a magic wand and make the damn thing go away. We don’t even really know where it’s likely to go at this point. Great way to spend a holiday weekend, no?

Interview with Cris Feldman

With the recent ruling by the Third Court of Appeals that seemed to give validation to the “checks aren’t cash” defense, I wanted to see if my impression of the ruling was shared by anyone else. Towards that end, I had a conversation with one of the people who helped bring TRMPAC’s activities to light, attorney Cris Feldman, who represented several plaintiffs that successfully sued TRMPAC and its treasurer, Bill Ceverha, on the grounds that it had illegally spent corporate money on Republican campaigns in the 2002 elections. You can get some background on that from this 2006 op-ed Feldman wrote for the Washington Post shortly after Tom DeLay cut and ran from that November’s election. Feldman had some provocative things to say about that ruling and other related items, which you can hear in this interview I did with him, as always in MP3 format. Let me know what you think.

Why solve a problem when you can define it away?

*slaps forehead* Who knew that the whole people-without-health-insurance thing could be solved so easily?

Texas once again led the nation with the highest percentage of residents without health insurance, a U.S. Census Bureau report showed Tuesday, although the same study also reports a slight dip last year in the percentage without coverage across the nation.

Almost one of every four Texas residents – 24.8 percent – were uninsured in 2006 and 2007, based on an average of the rates for those two years. That’s up from 23.9 percent for 2004 and 2005.


But the numbers are misleading, said John Goodman, president of the National Center for Policy Analysis, a right-leaning Dallas-based think tank. Mr. Goodman, who helped craft Sen. John McCain’s health care policy, said anyone with access to an emergency room effectively has insurance, albeit the government acts as the payer of last resort. (Hospital emergency rooms by law cannot turn away a patient in need of immediate care.)

“So I have a solution. And it will cost not one thin dime,” Mr. Goodman said. “The next president of the United States should sign an executive order requiring the Census Bureau to cease and desist from describing any American – even illegal aliens – as uninsured. Instead, the bureau should categorize people according to the likely source of payment should they need care.

“So, there you have it. Voila! Problem solved.”

Brilliant! And so widely applicable. With a similar wave of the magic semantics wand, *poof*! No more unemployment or poverty, either. Why didn’t we think of this before?

Hilariously, the McCain campaign is now claiming Goodman is not an advisor, which appears to be not fully true, as well as the part where they claim his views are different from McCain‘s. That kind of whining is quite unbecoming, fellas. Thanks to Kevin Drum for the initial link.

In the box provided, he listed “Wealth”

The rich are different than the rest of us.

He is said to be the richest man in Texas politics. But voters might have a hard time figuring that out from the information that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has disclosed to the state ethics commission.

Nowhere does it say that the former CIA agent is a major shareholder in a Houston energy and investment company through a privately held trust. Nor is there a word about the hedge funds, stocks, bonds or publicly traded fuel distribution company that he acknowledges are or have been part of a trust fund that is estimated to be worth as much as $200 million.

It just says the David Dewhurst Trust is valued at “$25,000 or more.”

Some ethics watchdogs question whether Dewhurst, a Republican who has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to help elect GOP candidates in Texas and beyond, has complied with disclosure requirements. Either way, they say, the lack of transparency about his wealth and personal dealings makes it impossible to determine if the lieutenant governor has conflicts of interest.

“It certainly flies in the face of the spirit of financial disclosure,” said Edwin Davis, director of research at nonpartisan watchdog group Common Cause in Washington, D.C.

I’ll spare you any of Dewhurst’s lame and self-serving rationalizations for this. He’s pretty much free to thumb his nose at us over this, since he knows full well that the Texas Ethics Commission will have his back. Clearly, what we’ll need is for a David Dewhurst edition of the Bill Ceverha bill to make it through the Lege. Ironically, Governor Perry would likely be a champion of such a thing, since it would screw with his potential rival for the governorship in 2010. Lon Burnam, please pick up the white courtesy phone. Thanks to Banjo for the link.

There’s a reason some people can’t make up their minds


Joe Klein visited a focus group:

“Change” as a theme is over. Too vague. And Obama’s rhetoric has begun to seriously cut against him. “No more oratory,” one woman said. “Give us details.”

I always wonder about this stuff. I mean, it’s inconceivable to me that this woman is genuinely yearning to learn more about the details of Obama’s policy agenda. If she actually wanted to know, she could, you know, look into it. She could learn all about the differences between auctioning emissions permits and giving them away, about the implications of having the federal government provide reinsurance for catastrophic medical expenses, about the case for a permanent R&D tax credit, etc., etc. But all indications are that most people find politics boring, and policy details duller still. And swing voters, which is what this was a focus group of, are least interested of all.

I cite this partly because I strongly agree with the sentiment, and also because it gives me a reason to link to this article by Christopher Hayes in which he writes about his experience talking to undecided voters in Wisconsin in 2004. It’s one of the best pieces of political writing I’ve ever read, and if you haven’t seen it before, I highly recommend it. You’ll never think about “swing voters” the same way again.


I wish them luck with this.

Car sharing. Two words that still sound a little foreign when used together in Texas.

Yet on Tuesday, a Massachusetts firm called Zipcar made its debut in the state with a car-sharing service at Rice University.

The service is similar to a traditional car rental business but is underpinned by a broader mission: to get Americans to change the way they think about owning and driving cars.

“We envision a world where there are more car sharers than car owners,” Zipcar spokeswoman Kristina Kennedy said as she stood in front of a sign-up table on the Rice campus.

The service works like this: Rice students pay $35 for a yearlong membership, which allows them to reserve a car at $7 an hour or $60 a day.

At the reserved time, a swipe of a membership card across a sensor on the windshield unlocks the door. Keys are inside. Insurance is paid for, and members can buy gasoline at no cost using a charge card inside the car. But drivers pay a penalty if they return the car with less than a quarter tank.

Formed in Cambridge, Mass., eight years ago, Zipcar has had success with the service in metro areas including Chicago, Washington, Boston and San Francisco.

After dropping its minimum renting age from 21 to 18 last year, Zipcar is moving aggressively to contract with college campuses.

If you’re going to try something like this in Houston, which doesn’t have the same transit infrastructure as those other cities right now, aiming for a campus like Rice makes a lot of sense. Most students on campus there don’t need a car most of the time, and some of those who are currently paying however much for the limited parking that’s available could probably be persuaded to leave the car at home and try this instead. Don’t know how big the market will be beyond that in the near term, but it’s worth a try on that scale to see what’s possible.

Candidate Q&A: Judge Jim Jordan

Note: This entry is part of a series of written Q&As with judicial candidates who will be on the ballot in Harris County. I am also doing recorded interviews with non-judicial candidates.

1. Who are you, and what are you running for?

Judge Jim Jordan and I am running for Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The Supreme Court has statewide appellate jurisdiction in civil cases, which include contract, personal injury, family and juvenile cases. (The Court of Criminal Appeals is the high court for criminal cases.)

The Court’s jurisdiction is discretionary; that is, the Court decides what cases it will take. Parties do not have a right to have their cases heard by the Court. Instead, they petition the Court to review their cases, and only about 10% of the cases are granted review.

A justice must review dozens of petitions every week while keeping up with the more in-depth review of causes by writing opinions and hearing oral argument.

The Court also administers the Texas judiciary. Those duties include promulgating rules to govern court cases, lawyers, and judges,

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

Because I am very concerned that the court has become ideological, pursuing its own policy agenda and thus threatening our constitutionally guaranteed right to a jury trial. Many members of the bar share my concern.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

Judicial Experience: Judge 160th District Court; former judge 44th District Court

Leadership Experience: Elected by my fellow 39 District Court Judges as the Local Administrative District Judge of Dallas County, Texas; Former President, Garland Bar Association

Legal Experience: Board Certified Civil Trial Law since 1984; Served two terms District 6A Texas Bar Grievance Committee; teacher of trial advocacy skills at Southern Methodist University & Louisiana State University law schools and at the National Institute of Trial Advocacy (NITA)

5. Why is this race important?

There is a growing concern that the court is pursuing an ideological agenda rather than following its historic duty of protecting constitutional rights and applying the law. Partisanship should never enter into a judge’s chambers. A judge’s robe is black — not blue or red.

The court’s backlog has been well documented. I want to establish procedures that encourage timely disposition of case, including identifying judges who are behind in their work and eliminating judicial filibustering — the practice of allowing a judge to pull a case from consideration when that judge is in the minority in the hopes of gaining votes as the court changes, or as other judges are simply worn down.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I bring a wide range of legal experience and leadership to the highest civil court in Texas. I have served as a trial judge for the 44th and 160th District Courts in Dallas County. I am and have been since 1984 board certified in Civil Trial Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, a distinction earned by less than 2% of Texas attorneys. Before going on the bench, I had more than 25 years experience in representing a wide variety of clients, including small business men and women, police officers, individuals, and businesses as both plaintiff and defendant, in both trial and appeals courts. I am a member of the American Board of Trial Advocates, an organization that recognizes only the most experienced attorneys representing both plaintiffs and defendants whose purpose is to protect the right of trial by jury for all citizens, and the William Mac Taylor Inn of the Court, the purpose of which is to mentor younger attorneys and to support the Constitution. Because the Texas Supreme Court hears a variety of different types of cases, my broad experience makes me uniquely qualified to serve.

I have prior judicial experience on the bench, which my opponent did not have prior to his appointment by Gov. Perry. As a trial judge, I have encountered firsthand the legal issues that the Supreme Court ultimately reviews, including the frontline reality of the application of the rules and decisions handed down by it. My service in leadership positions for both attorneys and judges gives me the experience to take on this leadership position with confidence.


Dion Ramos, 55th Civil Judicial District Court.
Shawna Reagin, 176th District Criminal Court.
Al Bennett, 61st Civil Judicial District Court.

Let’s go to the videotape

Ready or not, here comes instant replay for Major League Baseball.

Umpires will be allowed to check video on home run calls starting Thursday after Major League Baseball, guardian of America’s most traditional sport, reversed its decades-long opposition to instant replay.

“Like everything else in life, there are times that you have to make an adjustment,” baseball commissioner Bud Selig said following Tuesday’s announcement. “My opposition to unlimited instant replay is still very much in play. I really think that the game has prospered for well over a century now doing things the way we did it.”

The 74-year-old Selig, who described himself as “old fashioned” and an admirer of baseball’s “human element,” softened his opposition following a rash of blown calls this year.

For now, video will be used only on so-called “boundary calls,” such as determining whether fly balls went over the fence, whether potential home runs were fair or foul and whether there was fan interference on potential home runs.

“Any time you try to change something in baseball, it’s both emotional and difficult,” Selig said. “There’s been some concern that, well, if you start here, look what it’s going to lead to. Not as long as I’m the commissioner.”

I think this usage of replay is appropriate. I’m more open to the idea of expanding it than I was at first, but there’s no rush. If we can see that this works well, and we can figure out a way to restore equity in situations where a call would need to be overturned – something that’s easier to do in a more discrete game like football – then we can consider other ways to use this. For now, let’s see what this system can do.

Video from available broadcast feeds — not every team televises every game — will be collected at the office of Major League Baseball Advanced Media in New York, where it will be monitored by a technician and either an umpire supervisor or a retired umpire. If the crew chief at a game decides replay needs to be checked, umpires will leave the field, technicians at MLBAM will show umpires the video and the crew chief will make the call, overturning the original decision only if there is “clear and convincing evidence.”

Leaving the dugout to argue a call following a replay will result in an automatic ejection. Replays of the boundary calls will not be shown on stadium video boards, MLB executive vice president for baseball operations Jimmie Lee Solomon said.

MLB said replay delays will be offset by fewer arguments.

This guy thinks that the fans at the games should be able to see the same replays as everyone else. I don’t think it’s that big a deal, but I can’t argue that more transparency is better than less.

Let’s all try to keep a sense of proportion about this. The situation for which replay might be used is so limited it might not even come up during the rest of the season. The amount of time spent bitching and moaning and appealing to tradition and the majesty of human error will be orders of magnitude greater than the amount of time games are delayed by replay review. Basically, I think this guy has it right. This is not a bad thing. It may not be perfect, and we may ultimately decide it’s not worth it, but it’s not bad to give it a try.

UPDATE: Joe Sheehan is blunt:

Baseball games should be decided by the players, not by low-paid middle-management functionaries of dubious competence and excessive self-worth.

Yeah. If we’re going to talk about the “human factor”, let’s let that be about the players, and not the arbiters.

No write-in opponent for Sheila Jackson Lee


After dangling the idea of running as a write-in candidate against U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who supported Hillary Rodham Clinton for president, Houston restaurateur and prominent Barack Obama supporter Marcus Davis said today that such a candidacy would distract too much from the Obama effort.

“The price is too heavy to pay,” he said, about 80 minutes before the deadline for filing a candidate application with the Texas Secretary of State’s Office.

However, Davis also said that after the Nov. 4 election, he and other Jackson Lee constituents will make strong demands of her to improve her representation of the 18th Congressional District.

And he will help make contingency plans for a candidate to run against her in the 2010 Democratic primary, Davis said.

I heard about this possibility a long time ago, but never really gave it much thought, mostly because there were too many other races to worry about. For what it’s worth, I don’t have any particular complaints about Rep. Jackson Lee, who is my representative in Congress. She votes the way I want her to vote, and that’s really all you can ask. I have noticed that she’s been more visible at campaign events and the like than I recall her being in the past, and she’s definitely been a strong supporter of Barack Obama at those events. I’ve said before that I think this sentiment will largely fade in the event of an Obama victory, and I still believe that. But if I’m wrong, the name that’ I’ve heard being floated as a 2010 challenger to her is City Council Member Jarvis Johnson from District B.

I don’t think a write-in challenge to Jackson Lee was ever going to be more than a distraction. But we don’t really need any distractions this year, so I’m glad to hear that it won’t happen.

“But the pension fund was just sitting there!”

Are we really sure this is a good idea?

With highway construction slowing because of red tape and budget woes, Texas’ top three leaders — Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick — on Thursday proposed sweeping policy changes to jump-start and pay for new road projects.

In a letter to Texas Transportation Commission Chairwoman Deirdre Delisi, the three proposed significant changes in how Texas pays for the roads it builds and said they have “agreed to work together” to make changes.

Otherwise, they said, the state’s “ability to fund needed transportation projects in the future is limited,” due to cutbacks in federal highway funding, limitations of existing state funding programs and population growth that continues to outpace infrastructure planning.

One prong of the plan would create a Transportation Finance Corporation to allow state investment funds — including the state employee and teacher retirement systems, among others — to directly invest in state transportation projects. Combined, the two state systems manage $135 billion in assets.

State pension officials took a cautious view of investing in state projects in testimony this year before the Senate Finance Committee, saying a mandate to invest in Texas infrastructure could conflict with their duty to find the best return on investment for retirees.


Britt Harris, the chief investment officer of the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, said infrastructure investing could make sense if the deal was “equal to or better than something we can get in another (investment) vehicle.”

The pension fund’s “ultimate loyalty is to the members,” Harris said, not to target investments based on geography or politics.

Paul Burka lays out in detail the problem with this plan.

[T]oll road projects are risky investments. They are risky for two reasons. One is that they are subject to economic fluctuations that affect people’s driving habits, such as the price of gasoline or the pace of development. The second reason is that, when government is involved, they are vulnerable to political pressure and favoritism. Google “toll road defaults” and you will find a trove of stories with unhappy endings. The Camino Columbia toll road in Laredo, which was rife with political intrigue over which landowners would benefit from having a road go through their property, opened in 2000 and defaulted in 2004. Cost: $90 million. Auctioned off for: $12 million. Tx-DOT bail out acquisition payment: $20 million. The Dulles Greenway toll road to Washington’s Dulles Airport defaulted on its bonds within a year of its opening in 1995. The private owner, Toll Road Investors Partnership II, have lost money every year since the road opened. When toll roads lose money, tolls go up-in this case, to $4.80 by 2012. That works out to an astronomical 35 cents per mile. There are similar stories in Orange County, California (where the state had to buy failing toll lanes), and along Florida’s west coast, and near Richmond, Virginia, where the 8.8-mile Pocohantas Parkway, financed with tax-free bonds, has suffered around a 50% shortfall in projected toll receipts; the state has had to maintain the road because the private owners don’t have the money. Bond ratings have been lowered to below investment grade. To pay off the bonds, the toll was increased by 50%.

Funny how you never seem to hear that sort of story when toll roads are touted as a cure for what ails us, isn’t it? Eye on Williamson and McBlogger have more.


I feel pretty confident that John McCain will announce his pick for Vice President shortly – maybe tomorrow, maybe not – timed to distract as much attention from Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic Convention as possible. But whether he does that or waits till it’s his week, I don’t put much stock in this.

Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s long-shot prospect for vice president is getting a push from conservative and other pundits in the lead-up to next week’s Republican National Convention.

The latest flurry of speculation online and on cable television constitutes at least a third or fourth wave of chatter about Hutchison, whose name surfaces occasionally as a possible Republican vice-presidential candidate.

Hutchison, a delegate to next week’s convention, will address the gathering in Minneapolis-St. Paul on the subject of energy independence on Sept. 3, her office announced Tuesday.

The speaker slot would seem to douse the veep-talk, but no one would say for sure. A spokesman for Hutchison declined to comment, and the McCain campaign did not return a call about McCain’s colleague from Texas.

“She is female, which addresses the novelty of the opposition; she is smart and well-respected; she is knowledgeable on key issues, especially domestic policy,” said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas at Austin government professor. “I still think it’s going to be Mitt Romney.”


The short odds for McCain’s vice-presidential picks include Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former White House budget official Rob Portman of Ohio and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

“The conservatives could probably stomach (Hutchison) a lot better than a Tom Ridge or Joe Lieberman,” said University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray. “She is a woman and their strategy seems to be to go for disaffected Clinton voters. But I would say this is more like the Chet Edwards boomlet — it raises the profile, there is no downside to being mentioned, but Hutchison at this point looks like a last-minute ploy, not a considered judgment.”

I think Dr. Murray has it right, but you never know. On the other hand, it would be funny to see Rick Perry campaign for a ticket that contains probably at best his third choice for President, and his biggest in-state rival. Would he manage to refrain from gloating about how he psyched her out of the Governor’s race yet again? We may never know, but I get a grin just thinking about it.

Candidates speak on mental health and criminal justice issues

Wish I’d known about this, I’d have loved to have been there.

Candidates for three of Harris County’s top elected offices promised Tuesday to reduce the number of mentally ill or drug addicted jail inmates by providing more community services through partnerships with advocacy groups.

Harris County spends an estimated $87 million a year to incarcerate and treat mentally ill inmates.

Speaking at a forum on behavioral health and the criminal justice system, Republican and Democratic candidates for county judge, sheriff and district attorney offered ideas meant to divert the mentally ill from jail to treatment.

There’s not much detail about their statements in the story, so it’s a little hard to offer a cogent critique of any of them. The good news is that everyone seems to be taking the idea that using the jails to warehouse these folks is not a good use of public resources. There’s a real need for reform here, and a lot of opportunities to do better. I’m glad to see that we’ve started this discussion without having to argue that point.



Gustav swirled toward Cuba today after triggering flooding and landslides that killed at least 22 people in the Caribbean. Its track pointed toward the U.S. Gulf Coast, including Louisiana where Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc three years ago.

Oil prices jumped above $119 a barrel as workers began to evacuate from the offshore rigs responsible for a quarter of U.S. crude production.

“We know it’s going to head into the Gulf. After that, we’re not sure where it’s heading,” said Rebecca Waddington, a meteorologist at the Miami-based National Hurricane Center. “For that reason, everyone in the Gulf needs to be monitoring the storm. At that point, we’re expecting it to be a Category 3 hurricane.”


Friday is the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s strike on Louisiana and Mississippi, and Gustav’s tentative track raised the possibility of a Labor Day landfall there. But the average error in five-day forecasts is about 310 miles (500 kms) in either direction, meaning the likeliest targets could be anywhere from South Texas to the Florida Panhandle.


Gustav is raising concern particularly because there are few surrounding wind currents capable of shearing off the top of the storm and diminishing its power, the hurricane center said. “Combined with the deep warm waters, rapid intensification could occur in a couple of days.”

All we can do now is wait and hope for the best. I suspect no one is going to be snarking about the hurricane forecasters overestimating the season after this.

Interview with Diane Trautman

I’ve been a fan of Diane Trautman since she ran for State Rep. in HD127 last time, where she significantly outperformed the rest of the Democratic slate in that red district. I’m thrilled that since she’s running countywide for the office of Harris County Tax Assessor I’ll be able to vote for her this time around. I hope she and the rest of the Democratic Party can build on the inroads she made in the far northeastern reaches of Harris County. She was the featured speaker when the Harris County Coordinated Campaign opened its Crosby office. I figure there wouldn’t be a Crosby office if it hadn’t been for Trautman’s voter outreach from 2006. Yeah, I’m a fan.

The interview is here. One minor correction, which the Trautman campaign emailed me after the interview to make: The Harris County Tax Assessor is a voting member of the HCAD board. That’s not the case in general – it’s not so in Galveston, for instance – but HCAD, at its discretion, has made the Harris County Tax Assessor a voting member of its board.


Vince Ryan, Harris County Attorney
Chris Bell, SD17
Loren Jackson, Harris County District Clerk
Brad Bradford, Harris County District Attorney
Diana Maldonado, HD52
Eric Roberson, CD32
State Rep. Juan Garcia, HD32
Ernie Casbeer, HD59
Joe Moody, HD78
Chris Turner, HD96
Robert Miklos, HD101
State Rep. Dan Barrett, HD97
Wendy Davis, SD10

Speaker’s statute tossed

Texas Politics brings the news.

A 1973 state law banning organizations or “groups of persons” from contributing “anything of value” to influence the election of Texas House speaker is unconstitutional, a federal judge said today.

Read the ruling from U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks.

A coalition of groups from the political right and left joined to filed the suit earlier this year.

“While the ACLU, the Free Market Foundation and the Texas Eagle Forum disagree on many issues, we are delighted that our united opinion on this unconstitutional law prevailed,” said ACLU of Texas Legal Director Lisa Graybill in a news release.

“This victory secures the rights of every citizen in Texas to be free to speak their mind about the speaker of the House race without the fear of being thrown into jail,” said Kelly Shackelford, president of the Free Market Foundation.

Some background on this can be found here and here. As I said before, while we may as not have this law if we’re not going to enforce it, I think it’s a bad idea to not have it. I think the free speech argument is absurd. The only entity that is interested in this is the lobby, and their ability to express themselves is just fine, thanks. I hope the next Lege takes another shot at this.

The homework blues

There are many experiences I look forward to sharing with my girls as they grow up. Homework is not one of them. I’m kind of hoping for this attitude to catch on.

The Spring Branch school board has ordered a committee to review the district’s homework policy to make sure students are benefiting, rather than burning out, from the extra assignments.

In school districts across the country, educators and parents are debating the value of homework as schools face growing pressure to meet state and federal testing standards and to prepare students for college.

While most students still can expect a backpack full of spelling words to memorize, math problems to solve and maps to label, a few schools nationwide have gone as far as banning homework.

“There was this trend where the amount of homework was equated with how rigorous your program was,” said veteran teacher Steve Antley, president of the Congress of Houston Teachers. “What you’re seeing in Spring Branch and in other places is a backlash to that.”

Spring Branch’s current homework policy spells out time limits for homework at the elementary school level — no more than an hour for grades 2-5 and half that for younger students. But some board members want to place stricter rules on what teachers can and cannot assign.

“I’m not a believer in sending home 25 algebra questions as homework when five would let the teacher know if the student gets it,” said trustee Mike Falick, who has two school-aged children. “Homework, to be useful, has to be graded and has to have prompt feedback. It can’t be done for completion only.”

I think trustee Falick hits the nail on the head. I don’t see any value in homework as busy work. Quite the reverse, in fact. Kids are smart enough to know when they’re doing something useful, and they’re smart enough to figure out ways around it if they’re not. I don’t think that’s the lesson you want to be teaching.

Not one and done

Awhile back, some McCain surrogates were floating the idea that the Republican Presidential nominee would make a pledge to serve only one term in the White House. Whatever the merits of that idea, it appears to now be inoperative.

John McCain stated unequivocally in an interview with Politico on Wednesday that he would not pledge to serve only a single four-year term, rejecting a suggestion that some allies believe would allay questions about his age and underscore his nonpartisan message of putting country first.

“No,” McCain said flatly, “I’m not considering it.”

I never saw the sense in that, so I’m not surprised by this. I guess trial balloons get floated for all kinds of crazy things because hey, you never know what might catch on. Even this.

This was a more interesting thing for McCain to say, I think:

[H]e declined to outwardly criticize Bush and flatly stated that he wouldn’t do anything as president to underscore his difference with the unpopular incumbent.

“I don’t have any need to show that I’m different than President Bush,” McCain said when asked if he’d take any steps after being elected to demonstrate where he’d diverge from his predecessor.

Four more years? I’m thinking that’s not the best slogan this time around. If this incident was any indication, we’ll see the reversal in another week or two.

Kim’s last dance

One last day in court for State Sen. Kim Brimer.

The 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the lawsuit filed by Texas Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth, to keep Democratic challenger Wendy Davis off the November ballot.

Both side have submitted briefs outlining their positions. The court is set to hear oral arguments on Sept. 18 at 9:30 a.m.

Judges are not bound to any timetable for rendering a decision. The court already let pass a deadline for ineligible candidates to be removed the ballot.

As we know, the Supreme Court has already turned Brimer down. I suppose the 2nd Court of Appeals could, in theory, just not get around to issuing a ruling till after the election. I don’t seriously think that will happen, but who knows, maybe they’ll want to mess with us.

What happens if this court rules Davis is ineligible, given that the deadline has passed?

Last week, a spokesman for the Texas Secretary of State said that candidates can still be declared ineligible before voters hit the polls in November, but that if an ineligible candidate wins a race that seat would be left vacant pending a special election.

And I imagine if that were to happen here, Davis would win the special election handily. It’d save us all a lot of time and money if the court would just leave this alone. Let’s hope they do the right thing.

Here comes Hillary

I’ve been hoping for this for a long time, so I’m really glad to see that Hillary Clinton will come to Texas to campaign for Barack Obama.

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton will return to Texas Sept. 21 to campaign for Barack Obama and Texas Democrats.

Mrs. Clinton will make stops in Hidalgo County, according to Hidalgo County Democratic Party Chairwoman Dolly Elizondo.

Barack Obama is struggling with some Clinton backers, including Texas Hispanics.

“The people who support Hillary, when they hear from her, I don’t think they will have any problem supporting Obama,” Ms. Elizondo said.

Excellent. About the only way this could be better would be if she were to headline a fundraiser for Rick Noriega while here. Now maybe we’ll start to see less of this and more of this. Ten weeks to go, y’all.

Another favorable poll for Bell in SD17

BOR has the news.

According to a new poll done by Cooper & Secrest, SD-17 looks great for Congressman Chris Bell.

A poll done August 14 and between 16-18 of 404 likely general election voters in Texas’ 17th Senate District shows Bell with huge numbers.

* In the 4-way trial heat for Senate, Bell dominates: 42% Bell, 8% Huffman, 5% Furse, 4% Harpold, and 41% undecided.
* Chris Bell is the best known and best liked of any of the candidates in the field (75% i.d. 44% positive, 26% negative).
* In this district where fully 61% give President Bush negative job performance ratings, as do 67% in regards to the state legislature as a whole, Chris Bell is a clear voice for change.
* Despite the fact that the 17th District is plurality Republican (50% Republican, 33% Democratic), fully 71% REJECT the notion, “It is very unlikely I would ever support a Democrat for State Senator.”
* And fully 61% concur, “The Republicans in Austin simply haven’t been effective enough; Texas really needs new leadership to solve challenges like the crisis in school funding and ethics in state government.”

There isn’t a link to a poll memo, so I don’t know what the crosstabs looked like. Bell’s level of support in this poll is almost identical to that of a poll done in May testing a two-way matchup with Austen Furse. I don’t think there’s any question that Bell is the frontrunner here. It’s just a matter of if he can clear 50% or if he’ll need to win a runoff.

Pistol-packing DAs

Here‘s a nice little can of worms.

Harris County District Attorney Ken Magidson has asked the state’s top lawyer if he can legally stop his assistants from taking handguns into courtrooms despite a new law removing most restrictions on where prosecutors with gun licenses can carry their weapons.

Magidson requires members of his staff, even those with concealed handgun licenses, to obtain his permission, as a condition of employment, before they can carry a firearm into a court.

He is seeking Attorney General Greg Abbott’s opinion on whether he can continue his policy, despite a 2007 law that allows prosecutors with handgun licenses to pack their pistols anywhere except jails or prisons. They also are prohibited from carrying while intoxicated.

Pet peeve time: I do not understand why, in the year 2008 when so many people will read this story online – something the Chron obviously encourages thanks to its and Digg and Technorati and Yahoo! Buzz links – the story does not include the relevant bill number and Texas statute information. Why not provide that information, so the readers may look up the bill and statute in question and see for themselves what they say and what they think about DA Magidson’s actions? You might even include the links in the online version of the story, because once you have those pieces of information, it’s only a small extra step to take. Why wouldn’t you want to do this?

Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, I will tell you that as far as I can determine from searching the Texas Legislature Online, the relevant bill was HB2300, which amended Section 46.15 of the Penal Code to exempt “an assistant district attorney, assistant criminal district attorney, or assistant county attorney who is licensed to carry a concealed handgun under Subchapter H, Chapter 411, Government Code” from the prohibition in Section 46.03 against possessing a firearm “on the premises of any government court or offices utilized by the court, unless pursuant to written regulations or written authorization of the court”. Note that “a district attorney, criminal district attorney, or county attorney” was already exempt from this prohibition – the new law merely extended that exemption to ADAs and the like.

Now that we’re all clear on that, the question is whether or not a DA can implement, or in this case maintain, a policy of restricting ADAs from packing heat in the courtroom unless said ADA meets some kind of training standard. This seems a reasonable thing to me, but it won’t shock me if AG Greg Abbott says no, the law doesn’t allow for that. I’d be interested to know what any actual lawyers think of that.

And it would be interesting to know what the two people who hope to inherit the DA’s office from Mr. Magidson think as well. He had said, upon taking over the office, that he expected to make “small changes” during his tenure. I don’t know that this counts as such, but then it looks like he may have been forced to take some action. I may try to track down a response from C.O. Bradford and Pat Lykos; if I succeed, I’ll add an update.

Candidate Q&A: Al Bennett

Note: This entry is part of a series of written Q&As with judicial candidates who will be on the ballot in Harris County. I am also doing recorded interviews with non-judicial candidates.

1. Who are you, and what are you running for?

Alfred H. “Al” Bennett, Democratic Candidate for the 61st Judicial District Court, Harris County, Texas.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

District courts are generally courts of general jurisdiction. In short, the district courts have concurrent jurisdiction with the statutory county courts in civil cases where the amount in controversy exceeds $500 but is less than $100,000, and exclusive jurisdiction where the amount in controversy is $100,000 or more.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

The 61st Civil District bench is a very historic bench for Harris County. Created in 1903, it has had several judges of note, including Judge Walter Monteith (later Mayor of Houston) and Judge Shearn Smith (architect of the modern day jury service system). I want to continue the fine public service tradition established by these notable jurists as the next judge of the 61st District Court.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

After graduating from the University of Texas School of Law, one the finest law schools in the country, I immediately started practicing law at the firm of Fulbright & Jaworski. I later worked at the litigation firm of Solar & Fernandes for several years before starting my own practice, Law Offices of Alfred H. Bennett, in 1998. Also, since 2003, I have served as an Adjunct Professor of Law at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law teaching second-year law students how to try lawsuits. Additionally, I am a Certified Mediator, having received my training at the A.A. White Dispute Resolution Center located at the University of Houston Law School in August 2007.

5. Why is this race important?

The 2008 judicial races in general are important because the citizens of Harris County finally have the opportunity to restore fairness, balance, and integrity to our judicial system. Currently only Republicans sit on Harris County’s twenty-five civil district benches. When elected, I and my fellow Democrats will treat each person who enters the courtroom with the courtesy, dignity, and respect they deserve and administer justice even-handedly.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I believe the experience I’ve gained in the courthouse during seventeen years of practice and out in the community as an involved citizen will allow me to bring a fair and balanced prospective to this important and historic civil bench.


Dion Ramos, 55th Civil Judicial District Court.
Shawna Reagin, 176th District Criminal Court.