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September 23rd, 2010:

Endorsement watch: DMN for Weems

The Dallas Morning News is almost always the first out of the chute with most election endorsements. This year is no exception, as they’ve already issued recommendations for most statewide offices. They’ve gone mostly Republican – Keith Hampton for CCA notwithstanding – but broke with that by giving a resounding thumbs up to Jeff Weems, the Democratic candidate for Railroad Commissioner.

Seldom do we run into a first-time candidate for any office and wonder why that person hasn’t already been elected to the job. But that’s how impressed this newspaper is with Democrat Jeff Weems, who is seeking election to the Texas Railroad Commission.

The 52-year-old Houston attorney would be ready on Day One to make a significant contribution, which is why we strongly recommend him for the three-member panel.


Weems wants the commission to be more aggressive in lobbying the Legislature about its goals. We particularly like his idea of limiting fundraising for this quasi-judicial post to selected times during a commissioner’s six-year term. He would curtail fundraising shortly after a commissioner’s election until essentially the member’s next election cycle.

These are just some of the many examples of Weems’ smart and thoughtful views. His opponent, Republican David Porter of Midland, filled out our questionnaire, but the 54-year-old CPA neither showed up for an interview alongside Weems nor returned a call seeking a phone interview. Roger Gary is running as a Libertarian, and Art Browning is running as a Green Party candidate.

Weems and Porter are competing for an open seat, so voters would be well-served to take the time to distinguish between these candidates and dig deeper than sound bites. Weems clearly has the qualifications – and then some – to bring common-sense leadership to this influential commission.

I’ve had the opportunity to speak with Weems – the interview will run after next week – and I can attest to all the things they say. He’s very much the kind of person you want in this position, at least if what you want is someone who knows what he’s doing and would excel at it. The contrast in his election couldn’t be clearer.

Endorsement watch: When nothing is something

The Texas Farm Bureau endorses no one in the Governor’s race.

The Texas Farm Bureau, which has feuded with Rick Perry over toll roads and private-property rights, opted Wednesday not to endorse anybody in the governor’s race.

The decision was the first time the Farm Bureau’s political committee has not backed the Republican nominee for governor since it began making endorsements in 1990.

Spokesman Gene Hall said the bureau’s Friends of Agriculture Fund voted to stay neutral.

Democrat Bill White’s campaign hailed the decision as a victory.

“Bill White is committed to private property rights, while Perry’s spent years obsessed with the corrupt land grab of the Trans-Texas Corridor,” said spokeswoman Katy Bacon.

I figure stuff like this is the result of Perry’s “screw everybody except the base” strategy. I mean, it should be a no-brainer for him to get the Farm Bureau endorsement. Other than the occasional conservative, ag-friendly, incumbent Democrat, they endorse Republicans. Sure, they had a falling out with Perry over eminent domain in 2007 and the TTC before that, but they still have a lot in common, and there’s no reason why Perry couldn’t have found some way to win them back. You have to wonder how many people Perry can kick out of his circle before his circle becomes too small for him to win. He seems determined to find out, that’s for sure.

Judicial Q&A: Erica Graham

(Note: I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates on the November ballot. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. These Q&As are primarily intended for candidates who were not in contested primaries. You can see those earlier Q&As, as well as all the ones in this series and all my recorded interviews for this cycle, on my 2010 Elections page.)

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

Erica M. Graham and I am running for Judge, Harris County Civil Court at Law 1. I am a native Houstonian, and a graduate of Lamar High School in Houston ISD. I earned my bachelor’s degree from Santa Clara University in California, while attending school on a basketball scholarship, and graduated cum laude from Tulane Law School in 1997. While in law school, I interned for the Honorable Calvin Botley, recently retired Federal Magistrate Judge here in Houston. I am the mother of a six year old son, and an active member of The Church Without Walls here in Houston, where I participate in various outreach ministries, including, but not limited to, the worship and arts ministry, Diamonds in the Rough ministry (a mentoring ministry for teenage girls ages 13-17),legal ministry and Pas’ Angels (ministry that provides Christmas gifts to children whose parents are incarcerated). I am also an active member of the Houston Bar Association and The Downtown Group, and I volunteer for organizations committed to improving my community. My volunteer activities have included helping build a house for Habitat for Humanity, working for several of DePelchin’s annual toy drives, sponsoring children through the Houston Bar Association’s Adopt an Angel program, and doing pro bono legal work for the Houston Volunteer Lawyers Association and Lone Star Legal Aid. I have also participated as a speaker at career day events held by various schools and church organizations, as well as Judge for Moot Court competitions at Thurgood Marshall School of Law and South Texas School of Law.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

Civil matters, excluding family law, juvenile and probate law cases, wherein the amount in controversy is $500 – $100,000. Types of cases heard include, but are not limited to,personal injury cases, breach of contract cases, credit and consumer law cases, malpractice cases, property rights cases,property damage cases, defamation cases, and employment case. County Civil Courts at Law have exclusive jurisdiction over eminent domain cases and also hear appeals of civil cases from Justice of the Peace Courts and final rulings and decisions of the Texas Workers’ Compensation Commission.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I have over 13 years experience handling the types of civil litigation matters that will be heard before this Court, therefore I am familiar with the relevant rules of law, as well as the rules of evidence and civil procedure that are applicable to these cases. Furthermore,the dollar range of the amount in controversy for this Court appeals to me because I believe it will give me the opportunity to serve, interact with and directly impact the everyday lives of real people in the community.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have practiced civil litigation in Houston for my entire legal career. I have worked for two nationally recognized law firms – Fulbright & Jaworski and Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman – and as counsel for Chevron. I have represented clients in both state and federal courts in counties throughout Texas in litigation involving toxic tort and environmental law, employment law, personal injury law, oil and gas law and general commercial litigation. As lead counsel over several mass toxic tort dockets, I have gained invaluable experience litigating multi-party complex civil litigation cases. I have logged hundreds of hours in the courtroom arguing various types of pre-trial and discovery motions and trying cases before Judges in federal and state court in several counties throughout Texas. Additionally, as a volunteer lawyer, I have also had experience representing plaintiffs in smaller cases involving personal injury and some family law matters. I have been recognized for doing high quality work preparing and trying cases, identifying settlement possibilities, benefiting client organizations, considering cost implications, and explaining complex legal options and technical issues to opposing counsel and clients. I also have a proven track record of collaborating and working productively with managers, clients, judges, opposing counsels, other attorneys, legal staff and juries.

5. Why is this race important?

I believe that all Judicial races are important because Judges directly interact with and affect the lives of all the citizens of Harris County, both individual and corporate, on a daily basis. The fact of the matter is, the average person has a higher probability of appearing before or having an audience with a Judge then they do with most other elected officials. Therefore, all the people of Harris County should educate themselves about the candidates in these races and be involved in the process of electing the Judges who will hear their car accident cases, property rights cases, contract disputes, divorce cases, child custody cases, business disputes and will contests. These Judicial races are not something we the people can leave up to chance or put off on the next man or woman hoping that they will go out and make the right decision for us. In order to bring about real, positive change in the Harris County Judicial System we must all put forth an effort to elect Judges who are fair, unbiased and committed to serving justice with honesty and integrity to all.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I am a native Houstonian and was born and raised in Harris County. I am also a lifelong Democrat and a Sustaining Member of the Harris County Democratic Party. Therefore, I have a real and lasting connection to this community, and as Judge will strive to serve all the people of Harris County with integrity, honesty and a spirit of excellence. Additionally, I bring a diverse background to this position, in that I have worked in the court system as a judicial intern,in large firm private practice, small firm private practice, corporate legal department and as a volunteer lawyer with legal aid organizations here in Houston. Furthermore, being a minority female, I believe that I bring a diversity of life experiences to the bench that are unique and that would better equip me to serve the diverse citizenry of the Harris County community.

Furthermore, I want to improve the quality of justice served in the Harris County judicial system,especially at the County Civil Court at Law level. I believe that the Judiciary is in place to serve the people – all the people – of the community, and therefore should be committed to providing the best quality service they can to the people they serve. As Judge, I will be committed to customer service. In the courtroom, quality customer services means creating a people-friendly environment by: 1) running a timely and efficient courtroom; 2) being prepared before taking the bench by familiarizing oneself with the facts and relevant rules of law for the cases set on the docket and reviewing documentation submitted by the parties; 3) actively listening to the parties as they present their cases; 4) minimizing docket backlog; and 5) most importantly, treating everyone who comes through the courtroom doors with courtesy, dignity and respect. I also want to bring trust and accountability back to the courtroom. It is imperative that Judges be about the business of building and maintaining the trust of the people they serve by applying the relevant rule of law fairly and consistently to the facts of each case, regardless of who the parties may be and/or may represent. I believe that every citizen of Harris County, plaintiff and defendant, individual and corporate, regardless of race, gender, national origin, or socio-economic status, has the right to have their case heard by a Judge that is committed to fairness,impartiality and service with a spirit of excellence – and that Judge is me, Erica M. Graham Democratic Nominee for Judge, Harris County Civil Court at Law 1.

Council approves the Wal-Mart 380 agreement

No surprise.

Over strong neighborhood objections, City Council this morning passed a package of economic development incentives worth more than $6 million for the developer of a future Walmart store near the Heights.

City Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck offered two amendments to the agreement with Ainbinder Co., strictly limiting the potential taxpayer reimbursements to the company to $6,050,000 for public improvements that include landscaping, a bike trail, and widening, repaving and improving drainage on many of the streets that will surround the Walmart.

Four Council members – Noriega, Jones, Rodriguez, and Gonzalez – voted against the 380, while everyone voted for Clutterbuck’s sensible amendments. Given that Ed Gonzalez represents the district the Wal-Mart is in, I’m a bit surprised that there weren’t more No votes, but the Mayor’s influence is always strong in these matters.

More from CultureMap:

Mayor Annise Parker said that the city is in separate negotiations with Walmart to try to establish an operating agreement that would address additional community concerns not covered by the 380.

“We are going to continue to negotiate with Walmart,” Parker said in a post-Council Meeting press conference. “It’s not the end of the process; it’s the end of the 380 agreement.”

Negotiations between the Walmart developers and the city will continue over lighting, access and security. Parker said it should take 60 days to conclude those negotiations.

“We want to set a standard with Walmart about what we expect,” she said. Still, Parker admitted, “We don’t have any leverage, we don’t have an ordinance … These are voluntary things we’re negotiating with someone who wants to be a good corporate citizen.”

Here’s the memo the Mayor wrote regarding the 380 and the separate negotiations with Wal-Mart, and here’s the attachment referenced in the memo. Some of these things I know are things Wal-Mart already does elsewhere, but the ones that are specific to drainage and “tree islands” are both welcome and were requested by RUDH. I think if you can work in an agreement for the store to not have 24-hour operating hours and some more pedestrian and bike-friendly pieces, you may have the basis for something most people can live with. I still think it’s the wrong location for a Wal-Mart, and I’m certainly not the only person to think that.

In terms of vision, Washington Heights shopping center remains regrettably lacking in ideas. It is a suburban box and strip clad in slightly better materials than the typical Walmart, which seem to be the building’s only acknowledgment that it occupies a significant site. The disconnection of the architecture from its context comes through strongly in the developer’s renderings, which seem to portray a project in the middle of the Katy Prairie, rather than Houston’s inner-loop. The site plan reveals a tolerance for waste that serves as a painful reminder as to how little land close to the center of the city is valued.


Ultimately, Washington Heights is suburban-style development on an urban site, which over the long term will be another dysfunctional patch in the urban fabric of Houston. Is it better than an abandoned steel fabrication site? Probably. Does it improve Houston in any way beyond expanding the tax base, providing a few more jobs and additional (arguably redundant) retail? Probably not. Could this development have been planned in such a way as to yield a much more progressive product—one that Houstonians could feel good about contributing their tax dollars to? Absolutely.

I clearly haven’t spent enough time looking at the site renderings, because my reaction to the one in that Offcite post was to guffaw. Go ahead, try to guess where I-10 is in that design, never mind Yale Street.

I think with the points the Mayor has outlined, especially if there is continued feedback from RUDH and Super Neighborhood 22 and other stakeholders, the potential is there for it to be a lot less wrong. The main concern here is that I don’t know what actual leverage the city has with Wal-Mart. They’re not party to the 380 agreement, and it’s not clear to me that you can get anything from them other than their word of honor that they’ll do their best to try to accommodate, for what that’s worth. I should also note that RUDH is not happy with the vote on the 380 agreement, which they thought was “rushed” and which “[put] the developer’s interests above those of the public’s”. They plan to remain engaged, though, so maybe that will help put some pressure on Wal-Mart to agree to what is now being asked of them. It may not be that much, but it’s what we’ve got. Hair Balls has more.

Traffic deaths decline in Texas

Those of you looking for silver linings in the economic slowdown, here’s one.

In 2009, Texas saw a 12.1 percent decrease in the rate of traffic deaths, compared with a 9.7 percent drop nationwide, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The number of traffic deaths in the United States in 2009 was the lowest since 1950 – when there were a fifth as many cars on the road.

The sharp decrease is explained by a combination of factors – the sluggish economy (fewer jobs, less discretionary driving), an increase in seat belt use, safer roads and vehicles, and more enforcement and awareness programs, both on the state and national levels.

But experts agree that a decrease in fatal crashes involving young drivers is also key.

“The traffic safety problem in this country and in this state is far too significant to expect some solution from any one thing,” said Bernie Fette, a research specialist at the Texas Transportation Institute, part of the Texas A&M University System.

Over the years, the rate of fatal accidents involving drivers under 20 – historically, the most reckless age group – has steadily declined. Chandra Bhat, a transportation engineering professor at the University of Texas, said young drivers account for 6.5 percent of the driving population but are responsible for about 13 percent of fatal crashes.

“Clearly, young drivers contribute more than their share to accidents. That is not a question at all and has been known for a long time,” Bhat said. “The [overall fatality] decline is because of a decline among incidents involving young drivers.”

The full report is here. There’s a lot of reasons for the decline in fatalities, with an overall change in the culture that makes certain kinds of risky behavior such as drinking while driving no longer socially acceptable.

Nobody likes the Dome options

Remember the three options for the Astrodome that the Sports and Convention Corporation presented a couple of months ago? That recent KHOU poll included questions about those three options:

Harris County is considering three proposals for the Astro Dome. I am going to read you a description of each proposal. Please tell me if you favor or oppose each one.

Demolish the Astrodome and replace it with a park like setting at a cost of approximately $100 million.
Frequency Percent Percent
Favor 125 24.8 25.0
Oppose 340 67.3 68.0
Do not know 34 6.7 6.8
Refused 1 .2 .2
Total 500 99.0 100.0
Missing 5 1.0
Total 505 100.0
The outer shell of the Astrodome remains and the interior is converted into a multi-use venue at a cost of approximately $300 million.
Frequency Percent Percent
Favor 201 39.8 40.2
Oppose 252 49.9 50.4
Do not know 45 8.9 9.0
Refused 2 .4 .4
Total 500 99.0 100.0
Missing 5 1.0
Total 505 100.0
A redesign of the Astrodome that would include a planetarium, a movie soundstage and other attractions at a cost of approximately $500 million
Frequency Percent Percent
Favor 162 32.1 32.4
Oppose 289 57.2 57.8
Do not know 48 9.5 9.6
Refused 1 .2 .2
Total 500 99.0 100.0
Missing 5 1.0
Total 505 100.0

Yeah, not exactly in tune with the online survey that the Sports & Convention folks were touting. I know, I’m as shocked as you are. Option #2 is the least disliked, so maybe that’s the way to go. Or we can just keep doing what we’re doing until everyone who ever had an emotional attachment to the place is dead or too old to remember why they ever liked it. Maybe by then the bonds will be paid off.