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February 27th, 2010:

Saturday video break: Three cheers for the red, white, and blue

I’ve heard it said that “The Stars And Stripes Forever” is the greatest piece of American music ever written. It’s certainly the most recognizable, and as you can see below, it’s pretty versatile as well:

I think ol’ John Phillip would have approved, don’t you?

Early voting final report

Early voting was up considerably from the 2006 primaries.

According to figures released Friday by Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman, 84,018 total early votes were cast in person for the Harris County primaries — compared with 33,362 in 2006.

A total of 50,250 Republicans went to the polls during the early voting period while 33,771 voted for the Democratic candidates.

More Harris County residents from both parties voted on Friday than during any other day this week.

The figures do not reflect the mail-in ballots.

Here’s the release from Kaufmann’s office, which has more information; here’s the final daily totals by EV location; and here’s the corresponding information from 2006. The Democrats fell just short of equaling the 35,447 total votes from the 2006 primary, while the Republicans did break the 50,000 margin, making my wild guesses from Sunday look pretty good. Adding in mail ballots, the Dems just topped 40,000 while the GOP was over 62,000. As such, I’m revising my final turnout guess up a bit, to 70-80,000 for the Democrats and 100-110,000 for the Republicans. I figure about half of the in-person voters still prefer the traditional Election Day, which is where those numbers come from.

The heavy GOP early-voting turnout may reflect the bruising battle between the incumbent, Gov. Rick Perry, and his lead challenger, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. However, the previously little-known candidate Debra Medina also has waged a spirited campaign to win the hearts of Republican voters.

The comparison to 2002 is an interesting one. As I noted on Sunday, 95,696 Democrats voted in Harris in the 2002 primary, while 92,575 Republicans participated. Republicans will exceed that total this year, while Democrats will fall short of it. But in 2002, there were basically no Republican primaries of interest even though there were four open seats at the state level, while there were two high-profile, competitive Democratic statewide primaries. In 2002, John Cornyn got 77% of the vote for Phil Gramm’s open Senate seat against four people you’ve never heard of. David Dewhurst won over 78% against one no-name for Lite Guv. Greg Abbott inherited the nomination for Cornyn’s former office without any opposition. Only Jerry Patterson, who ran to replace Dewhurst as Land Commish, had anything resembling competition; he ultimately won with 56.5% of the vote against a former State Rep from the Dallas area. The Dems, meanwhile, had zillionaire first-timer Tony Sanchez running against former AG Dan Morales, and unlike this year, the zillionaire first-timer, who also had a ton of establishment support, ran a good enough campaign to win. They also had a multi-candidate race for the Senate that included former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, Houston Congressman Ken Bentsen, and 1996 Senate candidate Victor Morales. The Democratic gubernatorial race this year has largely been a one-candidate affair for reasons we’re all familiar with by now, and none of the other primaries have had much visibility in Harris County. So I can’t say I’m surprised at how it’s played out so far.

Two Trib primary stories

The Trib has done a series of good, informative stories on primary battles across the state, which I recommend you read. Two of their most recent are especially worthwhile:

First is HD43, in which freshman Dem Rep. Tara Rios Ybarra is being challenged by JM Lozano.

Lozano’s strategy is to label Rios Ybarra a “red Texan.” Her campaign contributions from Houston homebuilder Bob Perry ($10,000 from Jan. 22 through Feb. 20) and the Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC (about $145,000 in-kind during the same time frame), both well-known backers of Republicans, are all the evidence he needs. His vision is of a blue Texas, he says, and that means weeding out what she represents. “The first thing we have to do is get rid of all the closet Republicans from the Democratic Party. My opponent is one of them,” he says. “You cannot have a strong Democratic Party if you have people that are beholden to the other party because you take 90 percent of your funding from them.”

Rios Ybarra defends her “moderate” approach and her bipartisan tendencies, and the support she says comes with them, because of the economic hardship in District 43, which is one of the poorest in the state. It covers six counties — Jim Hogg, Brooks, Willacy, Kenedy, Kleberg and northern Cameron — and about a third of the families with children live in poverty. Nearly 40 percent of residents have less than a high school education. “I believe, in this country, that it isn’t about handouts,” she says. “I believe ultimately it’s about creating opportunity, and that is done when we have a strong small-business sector. If that resonates across the aisle, that resonates across the aisle.”

But Lozano’s accusations carry weight with at least one party mainstay. In a rare endorsement before a contested primary, the Jim Hogg County Democratic Party is backing Lozano. “A Democrat primarily financed by Republicans is no Democrat at all,” its chair, Juan Carlos Guerra, said in a Feb. 19 statement. Guerra claimed Rios Ybarra “hijacked” the term “Democrat” to claim victory in 2008 in this Democratic-majority district. “We will not sit back as a Democratic Party any longer and allow Republicans to infiltrate our party,” the statement continued. “She misled the voters once, but that will not happen again.”

An unfazed Rios Ybarra contends that her first term in the House, when she passed seven bills, shows her mettle. One that she’s most proud of, she says, allows access to Texas beaches by disabled people in motorized vehicles — and yet Lozano has criticized her for it. “He made fun of a bill that was given to me by the mother whose son was a quadriplegic and he couldn’t have access to the beach,” she complains.

A stone-faced Lozano says, “Ask her who gave her that bill. It was a lobbyist.”

I don’t care so much about who donates to whom as I do how you vote and what you support, and I don’t really know enough about Rios Ybarra’s record to judge. Having said that, anyone who is that strongly supported by TLR is a concern. And Rios Ybarra was widely considered to be a Craddick supporter in 2008 when she knocked off Juan Escobar. That turned out not to matter then, and it’s unlikely to be an issue this time around, but it’s not impossible. On balance, if I were voting in that race, I’d be voting for Lozano.

And in a race where I already know who I’m voting for, the Ag Commish race.

Gilbert and Friedman, who were both running for governor in those now-forgotten days before Bill White threw his hat in, may find themselves coveting the same job, but their notions of what that job is could hardly be more different. Gilbert emphasizes wonky expertise and hands-on experience, while Friedman is all showmanship — few campaign stops go by without him uttering his one-liner “No cow left behind!” or mentioning his desire for his ashes to be scattered in Gov. Rick Perry’s hair.

Before Friedman’s run for governor as an independent in 2006, he says Clinton told him, “Find a few issues that are close to your heart and hammer them relentlessly.” He took the former president’s advice then and chose a couple things this time too, focusing on his passion for animal rescue and shelters. The rest, he says, he’ll leave to the experts.

“Clearly Kinky has no direction other than he wants animals to run free, and for those that nobody wants anymore he wants to build shelters in every county,” says Gilbert. “Those are noble ideas and a fairy-tale way to live life, but it’s just not practical.”

Well, this race is a clear choice, that’s for sure. Either you like what Kinky is selling, or you grew tired of it four years ago and you prefer the clearly better qualified Hank Gilbert. I really don’t know how this one will turn out, but as I said, I know who I’m supporting.

CCA reverses itself, overturns death penalty in Hood case

Good.

A bitterly divided Court of Criminal Appeals granted a new sentencing trial for [Charles Dean] Hood based on frequently shifting U.S. Supreme Court rulings on flawed jury instructions used prior to 1991.

The 5-4 decision did not affect Hood’s 1990 conviction in the shooting death of two people in Plano. But in granting a new punishment phase trial, the court reversed its 2007 decision on a similar Hood appeal, prompting a sharply worded dissent that included a rare direct attack on one of the majority’s judges.

[…]

Hood’s case became national news because he is fighting for a new trial based on the revelation — confirmed in 2008 after several years of digging by defense lawyers — that then-District Judge Verla Sue Holland had been having a secret affair with Thomas O’Connell Jr., the former Collin County district attorney who prosecuted Hood.

In a separate appeal now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, Hood argues that it is unfair to be tried for any crime, let alone capital murder, in a court where the judge and chief prosecutor are romantically linked. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected that argument last year, ruling 6-3 that Hood’s lawyers waited too long to raise the issue on appeal.

The CCA did not address the matter of whether or not a sitting judge and a prosecutor may bone one another without legal consequence. Given the difficulty with which they’ve had even describing the situation, that may be for the best. Anyway, as noted there’s still a Supreme Court appeal over the original trial. I can’t wait to see what they make of it. More from Grits here and here.

More on the Sugar Land minor league baseball push

Here’s an update from the Chron to last week’s news about Sugar Land’s pursuit of a minor league baseball team.

The preliminary discussions about the ballpark put it in the Class AAA compatibility range, typically requiring a seating capacity at least in the high four-digits, but the exact capacity is among the features that will be sorted out during the 90-day period, which ends in mid-May.

Which league will make the expansion or relocation to Sugar Land is the biggest question.

For now, it seems clear it will not be a team affiliated with a major league club. Sugar Land is part of the territory controlled by the Astros, so they can block any move of a competitor’s minor league club, and they are not inclined to bring one of their own affiliates to the area, according to Thompson and Opening Day Partners chairman Peter Kirk.

What will most likely happen, assuming this does go forward, is for a team from one of the independent leagues – the Atlantic League and the American Association, which seems to be the better geographic fit, are mentioned – to move or create a team there. These are AAA teams, so you’ll get an overall better quality of baseball than you’d get from a lower-level farm team, but what you won’t get is a peek at the Astros of the future. Odds are you’ll get a number of recognizable names, guys who used to be on a major league team and are trying to catch on with one again. It ought to make for an interesting mix. The city and the developer are in a 90-day negotiating window with the intent of having a facility ready by Opening Day 2012, so we’ll know soon enough what will happen.