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January 6th, 2014:

Interview with Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

There’s never much of an offseason for campaigns. The city elections are finally behind us, and believe it or not we’re six weeks out from the start of early voting for the 2014 primary elections in Texas. I was busy over the holidays getting started with interviews for various contested primaries, and while I don’t know how many I’ll wind up doing when all is said and done, there are some races that I definitely plan to target. None are bigger or more closely connected to me than the primary in my Senate district, SD15, which pits longtime Sen. John Whitmire against challenger Damian LaCroix. I trust everyone is familiar with Sen. Whitmire, who has served in the Legislature since 1973, served in the Senate since 1983, and who has chaired the Criminal Justice committee since 1993. Sen. Whitmire had a lot to say in the interview, so much so that I hardly had to ask any questions. He just got on a roll and went places that I wouldn’t have known to ask about if I’d been directing things. The interview was long enough – 68 minutes all told – that the resultant MP3 file was too large to upload to my webhost. Rather than do surgery on it and risk messing it up, I went and created an account on SoundCloud and uploaded it there. Here’s the interview:

Greg had pointed me to SoundCloud after the last web-based audio player I used went extinct, but this is the first time I’ve tried it. Let me know what you think, if you like this better than what I’d been doing I’ll keep using it. If not, then I’ll just save it for future extra-long interviews.

You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2014 Election page.

Stockman and Bitcoin

Somehow, this doesn’t surprise me.

U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, a Friendswood Republican with a history of flouting campaign finance laws, entered a new legal gray area this week when he announced his campaign can now accept donations in Bitcoin, a private virtual currency.

Stockman, who is challenging U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas in this year’s Republican primary, was attending an event promoting the NYC Bitcoin Center in New York’s financial district earlier this week when he told a reporter with Business Insider that his campaign could now accept Bitcoin donations. Stockman appeared to confirm the report by posting it on Facebook and Twitter.

Stockman isn’t the first politician to embrace Bitcoin, though he may be the first elected official to do so. Among the legal concerns about Bitcoin campaign donations is that the virtual currency makes it easier to make donations anonymously; federal campaign finance laws require candidates to reveal the names of their contributions. Few businesses currently accept Bitcoin though acceptance has been growing over the last year.

A spokesman with the Federal Elections Commission could not say whether Bitcoin donations are legal. In November, the FEC considered whether to explicitly allow federal candidates and political action committees to accept Bitcoin donations as in-kind donations. The committee deadlocked, 3-3. The commission has not taken up the issue since the November vote, a spokesman said.

Whether Stockman has actually received any Bitcoin donations is unclear. As of Friday morning, his campaign website’s donation page made no mention of Bitcoin. However, in a photo that has circulated online since Tuesday, Stockman is seen at the NYC Bitcoin Center event holding a poster with a scannable QR code on it. The code is a link to a Bitcoin account, but it is not clear if the account is Stockman’s campaign fund. Since Tuesday, the account has received Bitcoin payments worth more than $200.

When asked about the QR code in the photo in an email, NYC Bitcoin Center spokesman Hamdan Azhar wrote back, “Congressman Stockman’s office would probably be best suited to address your question.” A Stockman spokesman has not responded to inquiries about the QR code or whether the campaign has received any Bitcoin donations.

Fine by me if he wants to do that. He can collect Bitcoins, gold bullion, or live chickens as far as I’m concerned, as long as he meets the disclosure requirements. Given that this is Steve Stockman we’re talking about, I don’t have a whole lot of faith in that. But as a matter of philosophy I have no problems with this. As with contributing via text messages, I welcome these innovations as long as proper disclosure is made and all other relevant campaign finance laws are followed. I doubt Bitcoin donations will make any difference to Stockman’s campaign, but hey, a guy can dream if he wants to.

Would he be “Mayor Bun B”, or just “Mayor B”?

Rocks Off looks at the field of Mayoral candidates for 2015 and asks “Why not Bun B?”

Bun B and some lady

So to whom might the Bayou City turn for leadership through the latter half of this decade? The field is literally wide open, with only the usual allotment of ambitious policy wonks and green City Council members jockeying to move up in the municipal ranks at the moment. It might even be time to consider an outsider — in fact, someone whose nickname is already “Houston’s unofficial mayor.”

How does Mayor Bun B sound?

Laughable, according to the popular Houston rapper, whose latest album Trill O.G.: “The Epilogue” came out Tuesday and who performs at the Houston Symphony’s “Houston In Concert Against Hate” Anti-Defamation League gala Thursday night at Jones Hall.

“Too many skeletons in the closet, lol,” Bun told Rocks Off recently via email.

But what about those skeletons? Certainly Houston voters have proved they can be a tolerant lot, and Bun B the OG rapper now has plenty of company in his bio, with Bun B the Rice University comparative-religion professor, Houston Symphony collaborator and trusted friend/adviser to Houston’s existing mayor, who asked Bun to sit on her task force to combat texting and driving in April of this year. People have certainly run for mayor with fewer credentials than that.

UGK’s lyrics frequently criticized the guns and drugs that were rife in their hardscrabble neighborhood, while Bun and late partner Pimp C were never shy about celebrating the psychotropic indulgences that temporarily removed them from their grim surroundings. But they also never backed down from a fight, and never, ever rolled fake. Surely many voters would flock to a candidate like that, not to mention someone who understands the finer points of grippin’ grain and switchin’ lanes.

One of Houston’s leading political analysts says that kind of street cred could be invaluable in a mayoral campaign.

“I think one way for him to embrace the image is to use that as a way to create a real, visible narrative of what’s happening out there, and letting people know that these problems need to be addressed, and he is a good person to do it,” says Dr. Brandon Rottinghaus, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Houston. “A traditional politician may talk about those issues, but maybe hasn’t lived it, where in his case he has lived it and it gives him some credibility in a way doesn’t give credibility to a traditional politician.”

Rottinghaus likens Bun’s hypothetical campaign to that of someone like former Minnesota Gov. Jesse “The Body” Ventura, who in ran as the same kind of brash, outspoken maverick he was for years as a popular WWF wrestler, where he often played the “heel.” Ventura’s straight-shooting message connected with Minnesota voters, and he served four years in the state’s highest electoral office.

“The campaign ads he ran were all about how he was gonna wrestle the opposition, and it was time for a change in Minnesota, and he had kids with little Jesse Ventura action figures who were pummeling the competition,” says Rottinghaus “So they made that image work for them.”

One of the commenters on this story suggested a campaign slogan: “Vote Bun B For Mayor And Keep Houston Trill As F**k”. You’d hardly have to campaign with a slogan as awesome as that.

On a more serious note, the main problem with the Jesse Ventura analogy is that while one can certainly imagine getting a decent share of the vote running as an anti-establishment celebrity candidate, especially if one is blessed with opponents who are colorless or laden with baggage, that’s not enough to win. Ventura himself won with 37% of the vote in his three-way race. Thirty-seven percent won’t get you elected Mayor of Houston, however. It can only get you into a runoff. You need an actual majority to win, and that’s a much harder thing to do, especially if one’s primary appeal is to youth and one is running in an election where the average voter’s age is north of 50.

(Note to everyone who is now saying to themselves “Wait, didn’t Rick Perry get elected Governor in 2006 with 39% of the vote?”: The law in Texas is basically that only in partisan races, which is to say November races in even numbered years, is a plurality enough to win. In other elections – primaries, special elections, non-partisan elections like Houston city elections – a majority is necessary and if no one gets a majority, a runoff follows. There are some exceptions to this, but the bottom line is that Rick Perry’s non-majority election in 2006 has no bearing on City of Houston elections and the need for 50% plus one.)

Now, there is another model that Bun B could follow, and it’s a model demonstrated by another successful celebrity politician from Minnesota: Sen. Al Franken. There’s no reason why Bun B couldn’t do like Franken did and turn himself into a policy wonk, and thus broaden his appeal beyond his fanbase and the usual anti-establishment types to include the kind of voter who tends to participate in Houston city races. As the story notes, Bun B is already a man of many talents who has a history of getting involved in political matters. It wouldn’t be that much of a stretch. Obviously, I don’t expect Bun B to announce a candidacy (though I must say, I’d enjoy interviewing him if he did run). This is the sort of fun thing we political types like to chatter about during the slow times. But if he does have a hankering for public service in him, there’s no reason why he couldn’t do it.

(Yes, I know, some serious people are making serious guesses about who may or may not run for Mayor and other city offices in 2015. I thought about doing one of those myself, but got caught up in too many other things during the holidays. There will be plenty of time for such discussions later. For now, this was way more fun to talk about.)

It’s now officially OK to be gay in the Boy Scouts

Progress. Slow and incremental, but progress nonetheless.

The Boy Scouts of America will accept openly gay youths starting on New Year’s Day, a historic change that has prompted the BSA to ponder a host of potential complications — ranging from policies on tentmates and showers to whether Scouts can march in gay pride parades.

Yet despite their be-prepared approach, BSA leaders are rooting for the change to be a non-event, comparable to another New Year’s Day in 2000 when widespread fears of digital-clock chaos to start the new millennium proved unfounded.

“My hope is there will be the same effect this Jan. 1 as the Y2K scare,” said Brad Haddock, a BSA national executive board member who chairs the policy implementation committee. “It’s business as usual, nothing happens and we move forward.”

Some churches are dropping their sponsorship of Scout units because of the new policy and some families are switching to a new conservative alternative called Trail Life USA. But massive defections haven’t materialized and most major sponsors, including the Roman Catholic and Mormon churches, are maintaining ties.

“There hasn’t been a whole lot of fallout,” said Haddock, a lawyer from Wichita, Kan. “If a church said they wouldn’t work with us, we’d have a church right down the street say, ‘We’ll take the troop.'”

The new policy was approved in May, with support from 60 percent of the 1,400 voting members of the BSA’s National Council. The vote followed bitter nationwide debate, and was accompanied by an announcement that the BSA would continue to exclude openly gay adults from leadership positions.

Under the new membership policy, youths can no longer be barred from the Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts or coed Venturers program solely on the basis of sexual orientation.

[…]

The membership debate was closely followed by local Scouts on both sides; some carried signs and held rallies outside the meeting place. But in subsequent months, the debate has quieted.

Bill Helfand, scoutmaster of Troop 55 in Houston, said membership in his troop has remained steady at about 225 boys.

“We never considered sexual orientation, and I don’t think many troops really did,” Helfand said. “I don’t know whether we had Scouts who are homosexual. I don’t inquire … It’s not a matter of concern.”

Helfand said the membership debate, while closely covered in the media, did not extend into his meetings with leaders and parents, besides occasional discussion of the policy at camp-outs. He says he hasn’t talked to any Scout about his sexual orientation and doesn’t intend to.

“I know that this is something that people felt was a momentous turning point for Scouting,” Helfand said. “Everybody I know has made Scouting available to every boy who wants it, and that’s what we continue to do.”

See here and here for previous blogging. I have to say, this less-than-full change has been less contentious than I thought it would be. That said, it’s also the case that the Sam Houston Area Council is not going along with the change, so the effect is is somewhat limited locally. And there’s still that ban on gay adults affiliating with the BSA, the justification for which eludes me, so there’s still work to be done. But credit where credit is due, this is a step forward and it does matter.

And on a related note:

However, some Texas parents and leaders have decided to switch to Trail Life USA, an alternative which declares itself “a Christian adventure, character, and leadership program for young men.” Among them is Ron Orr, a business consultant from the Fort Worth area who is signing up local units for the group.

So far, he said he has 25 groups “pre-chartered” for a Jan. 1 launch date in the territory covered by the BSA’s Circle Ten and Longhorn councils. That’s modest compared to the 39,000 Scouts served by the Circle Ten council alone.

Orr is part of a family with four generations of Eagle Scouts. His older son recently earned his Eagle rank and his younger son was on the verge of doing likewise. But Orr said he could not stand by after the policy change.

“As Christians, from a scriptural basis, we love all folks, but the scripture is very clear that being homosexual is a sin,” Orr said. “We’ve got to be able to hold a strong line and set a consistent example for our young men.”

Mr. Orr is quite wrong about what scripture says. I’m sure that he has been told that about scripture all his life, and clearly he is now passing that bit of folklore along, but it’s wrong. It’s true that there are a handful of clobber verses, which I’m sure Mr. Orr would point to if challenged on this. It’s also true that there are vastly more verses about wealth, possessions and the poor, including some strict prohibitions against lending money at interest, which folks like Mr. Orr tend to overlook. If you’re going to cite scripture as a rulebook, then it’s on you to follow all of the rules, not just the ones you like. If you’re going to pick and choose, I see no reason to take you seriously about it.