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December 21st, 2009:

RIP, Laff Stop


The Laff Stop is closed … forever. On Saturday, the legendary club — that gave rise to national names such as Sean Rouse, Brett Butler and Ralphie May — ended it’s nearly-three-decade run of comedy in Houston. In other words, it’s now The Laff Stopped. (What? Too soon?) But seriously folks …

“It’s sad to see it go, because it’s 28 years that club has been around,” says Rob Mungle, a comedian who started his career around the same time the Stop opened. Mungle says the Laff Stop, known for having one of the best open-mike nights in the country, was a starting point for many comedians. “There are people who weren’t even born when it [opened], who were doing open mike [there], you know?”

I saw Sam Kinison there in 1990 or so, and Kinky Friedman back when he was still just a singer/comedian. One of the jokes Friedman told is still one of the funniest I’ve ever heard. (No, I won’t repeat it here.) It’s been awhile since I’ve been, but I’m still sorry to see the place go.

Judicial Q&A: Bruce Kessler

(Note: I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. There are a lot of judicial races on the ballot in Harris County this election, and so this is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. I will also be conducting some in-person interviews of candidates who will be involved in contested primaries for non-judicial offices. Please see the 2010 Election page listed at the top of the blog for a full list of Q&As and interviews.)

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

I am Bruce Kessler and I am running for Judge of the 308th Family District Court of Harris County, Texas, in the March 2010 Democratic primary.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The 308th is a family law court and hears matters such as divorce, custody, child support, suits affecting the parent-child relationship, terminations and adoptions, name changes and other cases involving interpersonal and family relationships

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I would like the opportunity to improve the 308th by making it a more efficient and user-friendly court. I plan to implement specific policies and procedures to make the court more accessible and efficient for the working families of Harris County and to expedite hearings and trials so that cases can be heard timely. I intend for courtesy, consistency, common sense and compassion to be the hallmarks of the 308th Family District Court.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I am an attorney with 23 years experience in the active practice of family law; I am Board Certified in Family Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, indicating special competence in the practice of Family Law; I am a former Family Court Associate Judge; I am a skilled family law mediator; I am a former Committee Chair of a State Bar Grievance Committee; and I belong to many professional organizations through which I keep current with family law issues.

5. Why is this race important?

This is an important race because it is for an open bench as the current judge is not seeking re-election. The 308th needs a judge with the experience, perspective and proven ability to administer the court efficiently and productively as well as the interest in making it more user-friendly and accessible.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

I am the only candidate for the 308th who is Board Certified in Family Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and have been certified as such since 1994. I am also the only candidate for the 308th who has served as an Associate Judge in a Family Court. Not only am I familiar with the law but I have a proven ability to manage a court’s docket.

I value honesty, integrity, hard work and common sense in my practice. I enjoy a good reputation within the Bar both personally and professionally. I am always receptive to new ideas and will strive to make the 308th a more efficient and user-friendly court. I plan to implement specific policies and procedures to make the court more accessible and efficient for the working families of Harris County.

My years as a mediator have provided additional insight and ability to hear and understand issues and have further enabled me to structure solutions that are customized for each case as opposed to “cookie cutter” justice.

Further, from a Democratic perspective, I ran for a family bench in 1998 and I have a solid history of voting Democratic.

I believe that I am the best qualified Democratic candidate in the primary election and the candidate best suited to compete against any candidate from another party in the general election.

Runoff precinct analysis, At Large Council races

Continuing on with the precinct analyses from the runoff, here’s a look at the City Council At Large races. First up, At Large #1:

Dist Derr Costello Derr% Cost% ==================================== A 7,200 8,160 46.9 53.1 B 5,737 4,859 54.1 45.9 C 9,001 9,870 47.7 52.3 D 11,804 7,487 61.2 38.8 E 5,754 9,154 38.6 61.4 F 3,345 3,753 47.1 52.9 G 8,373 14,662 36.4 63.6 H 6,960 4,891 58.7 41.3 I 3,144 3,598 46.6 53.4

Derr did very well in her backyard of District H, and had a fairly strong showing in A and D, while Costello ran strongly just about everywhere else. I have to believe that his financial advantage, which included being on TV quite a bit in the closing days, helped push him over the top. Derr did have a slight lead after early voting – counting absentee and in-person ballots, she took a 28,373 to 27,898 lead in Harris County into Runoff Day – but her surprisingly weak showing in African American areas like District B and Fort Bend County, which Costello carried by over 500 votes, helped do her in. There was a push in the runoff to identify Derr as the Democratic candidate and Costello as not, and I can only presume that it either wasn’t received in sufficient number, or wasn’t perceived to be important enough, perhaps due to Costello’s ad blitz. You have to wonder what might have happened if Derr had spent more money on voter outreach.

At Large #2:

Dist Lovell Burks Lovell% Burks% ==================================== A 8,953 5,571 61.6 38.4 B 3,128 7,773 28.7 72.3 C 12,427 5,962 67.6 32.4 D 8,015 11,974 40.1 59.9 E 7,659 6,834 52.9 47.1 F 3,967 2,966 57.2 42.8 G 12,963 8,770 59.7 40.3 H 7,235 3,721 66.0 34.0 I 3,625 3,036 54.4 45.6

As before, not much to see here. The only places Burks did well were the African American districts, and even there he didn’t really do all that much. If he hoped to get a boost from the Hotze endorsement, I’d say Lovell’s showing in Districts A, E, and G stuck a pin in those hopes. There’s a reason why perennial candidates keep losing.

Last but certainly not least, At Large #5:

Dist Christie Jones Chris% Jones% =================================== A 10,541 5,300 66.5 33.5 B 1,658 10,673 13.4 86.6 C 10,675 9,215 53.7 46.3 D 3,681 17,653 17.2 82.8 E 10,894 4,771 69.5 30.5 F 4,404 2,964 59.8 40.2 G 18,001 6,039 74.9 25.1 H 5,011 6,531 43.4 56.6 I 3,025 4,119 42.3 57.7

You want sharp contrasts, look no further. I’m still boggling over the numbers Jones put up in B and D, which along with Fort Bend were what she needed to hang on. Christie, meanwhile, clearly got a huge bang for all those bucks he and others put into mailers that attacked Jones. All of that activity had an effect on turnout – while the other two At Large races had about the same number of votes as they did in Round One, this race had about 3000 more, with a relatively miniscule 12.64% undervote rate. This race was also a good illustration of the partisan vote patterns – Jones had by far the biggest lead in Harris County in early voting, racking up nearly an 8000 vote advantage from in-person votes, for a net lead of about 5000 overall once absentee ballots are factored in. She then lost that lead in Harris on Election Day. Again, the 2009 pattern seems to be more of what we saw in 2008, with Democrats voting heavily early, and Republicans showing up on Election Day. That may have been the nature of those particular races – the Democratic message in 2008 was long, strong, and consistent about voting early, while the lack of any Republican interest for the most part until late in the game shaped this year’s contests – but it bears keeping in mind as we head into 2010.

I will have some commentary on the two district Council runoffs and the HISD I runoff before closing the books on 2009. As always, let me know what you think.

It’s almost as if the answer were staring us right in the face

Same song, I forget which verse.

As compared with a year earlier, sales tax collections were down 14.4 percent in November, and those kinds of returns have hastened budget-cutting talk. But what’s really driving the conversation is a decision that lawmakers made in wealthier times to put property tax cuts at the top of the state’s permanent priority list.

In 2006, facing an order from the Texas Supreme Court, lawmakers passed a one-third reduction in school property taxes for operations, committing the state to spend $7.1 billion every year to hold those taxes down. But the tax increases that lawmakers passed at the same time to replace that money — most notably a revamped business tax — produce less than $3 billion per year.

So every two years, the state has to pull more than $8 billion away from other priorities, such as public schools, universities or prisons, to pay the rest of the cost of property tax cuts. Doing so wasn’t too difficult when the state had surpluses, but now that they’re gone, the property tax cuts threaten to eat up any revenue growth the state sees, even though many homeowners never saw much of a decrease in their tax bills.

To meet the state’s commitment to hold down property taxes, to pay for an increasing number of people enrolling in public schools and colleges and joining Medicaid rolls and to replace the stimulus dollars used to pay for the current budget, lawmakers in 2011 might have to come up with $15 billion or more to balance the budget, which now totals $182 billion over two years.

If only there were some giant, irresponsible, unaffordable, multibillion dollar budget item that we could eliminate to make the deficit smaller. I just know that would go a long way towards solving our problems in the short term and the longer term. If only.

The race for HCRP Chair

I don’t have a dog in this fight, so I don’t really have an opinion to offer as to each candidate’s merits. From a purely selfish point of view, of course, I’d prefer that the best candidate, whoever that is, not win. The main point of interest about this race to me is that it’s a lot easier to be a county party chair when your party is winning. Things sure are more harmonious in the HCDP these days, and I’ve noticed a sharp drop in the level of public criticism of Gerry Birnberg since last November. If the Harris County GOP does well next year, then whoever is its Chair will be hailed as a hero. If they have a repeat of 2008, that person will wish he’d lost his election as well. It’s as simple as that. Martha has more.

Loren Jackson files for re-election

Most of the focus for the Harris County Democratic Party in 2010 will be finishing the job from 2008, which is to say winning more judicial races and the executive offices that will be up for election. There are a couple of seats to defend at the countywide level, however – Judges Dion Ramos, Robert Hinojosa, and Kathy Stone, all of whom won unexpired terms, and District Clerk Loren Jackson, who won the office vacated by Charles Bacarisse. Here’s Jackson’s announcement about his filing for re-election:

Loren Jackson officially filed today seeking re-election for another term as Harris County District Clerk.

“I remain steadfast in my commitment to serve the people of Harris County through continued fiscal responsibility, proven leadership and practical innovation that reduce costs to our taxpayers,” said Jackson.

In his short time in office, Jackson has utilized technology innovation to boost operational efficiency, improve services and cut costs within the Office of the District Clerk resulting in significant taxpayer savings. To date his administration has:

· Quadrupled monthly e-filings from 3,000 to 12,000/month

· Made court records accessible online to the public and the Harris County Bar through a redesigned website

· Created new jobs by relocating its call center from San Antonio to an in-house location at a savings of more than $400,000/yr. to Harris County Taxpayers and

· Progressively increased awareness of and attendance to Jury Service each month, reducing the cost of printing and mailing of reminder Jury Summons.

“The accomplishments of our office over this past year have reduced: operating costs, document processing time, and the number of people making trips to the courthouse for services,” said Jackson. “I would be honored to continue serving the citizens of Harris County by ensuring sound, fiscal oversight of the District Clerk’s Office and by finding more ways to cut costs to our taxpayers.”

As District Clerk, Jackson has jurisdiction over the summoning of prospective jurors for 74 courts and is responsible for custodial care and safekeeping of all court records for 59 District Courts and 15 County Criminal Courts located in Harris County. In addition, the Harris County District Clerk has the important responsibility of providing customer service to all child support cases (causes) heard in Harris County.

And in addition to all that, Jackson is the man who brought us WiFi in the Harris County Jury Assembly Room. Jackson has been very busy this past year, and his accomplishments have not gone unnoticed. Keep an eye on Loren Jackson, and make sure you vote for him next year.