Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

January 29th, 2014:

Interview with Gayle Mitchell

Gayle Mitchell

Gayle Mitchell

As previously noted, the Harris County Clerk’s office has had its share of problems in recent years, from incorrectly reporting the winner of a Democratic primary in 2012 to complaints about slow reporting of results overall on Election Day. This year’s election is an opportunity to talk about how these functions of that office can be improved. Gayle Young Mitchell is one of the two Democrats vying for the chance to drive that debate in November against incumbent Stan Stanart. Mitchell worked in the County Clerk’s office for 20 years, in various departments like Probate, Microfilm, Personal Records, and Administration. We talked about her experiences in the office as well as the challenges that it faces going forward in the interview:

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

Celia Israel wins HD50 special election runoff

Congrats, Rep.-elect Celia Israel.

Rep. Celia Israel

In the special runoff election for District 50 in the Texas House, Democrat Celia Israel took the lead after early voting.

Israel, a Realtor, earned 58.8 percent of the early vote, and Republican Mike VanDeWalle, a chiropractor, took 41.1 percent. The total number of ballots cast during the early voting period, which ran four days last week, was 4,541, or 4.67 percent of all register voters in the northern Travis County district.

Polls closed at 8 p.m. Tuesday, and hour later than normal. Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir successfully petitioned a local district judge earlier in the day to grant a request for the additional hour of voting because of inclement weather and the closing of eight of 36 polling places that operated out of schools that were closed due to bad weather.

The special election in District 50 took place to replace former state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, who resigned last year to lead Google Fiber in Austin.

The final total is here. Israel wound up with 60.2% 59.4% of the vote. And yes, turnout was pathetic. The weather obviously played a part of that, but there were other factors, too.

Turnout during early voting was extraordinarily low. Just 4.5 percent of eligible voters cast early ballots in the election — about half as many as in the last special election runoff in Travis County, according to the county clerk’s office.

Supporters of both campaigns have acknowledged the awkward timing of both early voting and election day. Early voting began last Tuesday, one day after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and ended Friday, when polls opened five hours late because of icy weather.

So there were only four days of early voting instead of the usual five – really, more like three and a half days of early voting. And this runoff occurred during the heat of the primaries, three weeks before early voting for that begins. I think people could be forgiven if they took their eye off the ball a bit on this one. Such downward pressure on turnout can sometimes cause bizarre results, which would have been greatly magnified given the subtext of this election.

[Jeremy] Bird is one of the founders of Battleground Texas, a group dedicated to making this Republican stronghold competitive for Democrats. Celia Israel’s race for an open seat in the state House of Representatives is not expected to be difficult considering the district has historically voted for Democrats.

“It’s nice to have a special election and a little bit of a test,” Bird said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Identifying, engaging and turning out voters will help the Israel campaign now and (gubernatorial candidate) Wendy Davis, (lieutenant governor candidate) Leticia Van de Putte and other Democrats in November. Not only are people more likely to turn out to vote again, but the results will give us a chance to check our voter model and fine tune it for the election.”

[…]

On Saturday, Israel’s volunteers each had a list of homes to visit where Battleground’s research showed a reliably Democratic voter could be found. The volunteers were given a recommended script to follow, including thanking the prospective voter, asking whether the person would be willing to volunteer, and taking down an email address.

The data collected by Battleground staff, combined with publicly available voter records, is critical to the group’s strategy to identify, register and recruit the 2 million Democrats they estimate are not voting in Texas elections.

“Data collected from personal conversations is much more effective for predicting who people will support and at what level they’ll participate,” Bird said.

Israel is running against tea party Republican Mike VanDeWalle, but few voters know about the election, so Battleground’s help in getting out the vote is critical. Battleground Texas volunteers have knocked on over 14,000 doors over two weeks, Bird said.

“Battleground Texas is not just a political slogan, it’s a political muscle, and we’re going to use it in 2014,” Israel said.

The final total in this election was far less than 14,000 votes, but the weather was a big factor in that. That cut both ways, however, and in the end Israel’s vote percentage was quite good. Here’s how she compared to the top scoring Democrat in HD50 going back to 2002:

2012 results
2010 results
2008 results
2006 results
2004 results
2002 results

Year High D High D% ========================== 2014SpR Israel 59.4% 2012 Obama 57.8% 2010 White 55.9% 2008 Obama 60.3% 2006 Moody 58.7% 2004 Molina 51.2% 2002 Sharp 54.3%

Note that Bill White and Bill Moody both outperformed the rest of the Dem ticket in their year by several points, and in all three off years several Republicans carried HD50. If 2008-level performance is the norm in other State Rep districts this fall, I’ll be plenty happy, and so I suspect will Jeremy Bird. For the record, I don’t think this special election runoff is a harbinger of any kind for November. It’s nice, but it’s one little data point. That said, if Israel had struggled to win, or even worse if she had lost, you could have wallpapered Reliant Stadium with the collected writings of every damn pundit, blogger, and assorted loudmouth in the state blathering on about how this portended doom for the Dems and proved Battleground Texas was a sham. I think I’m entitled to point out that Israel and BGTX easily met expectations, at the least. And now Rep.-elect Israel gets to do it again in November, against the same Republican opponent. I’ve made it this far without mentioning that Rep.-elect Israel becomes the second out gay member of the Legislature, joining Rep. Mary Gonzalez of El Paso, so I’ll rectify that here; see Lone Star Q and the Dallas Voice for more on that. Congratulations, Rep.-elect Celia Israel, and best of luck to you in November.

UPDATE: When I wrote this post last night, the Travis County results page had been updated at 9:13 PM, and the cumulative totals page showed 39 of 39 precincts completed, with Israel at 60.2% of the vote. It also showed that all of 700 votes had been cast on Tuesday, but who was I to argue with that? In any event, a 10:23 PM update shows 5807 votes cast on Tuesday, with Celia Israel now receiving 59.42% of the overall total. That’s down a bit from what she had as of the 9:13 update, but still a higher percentage than any other Democrat other than President Obama in 2008 (former Rep. Mark Strama was unopposed in 2012, the only year in which he ran under the new boundaries), so my point about how she and BGTX did in this race remains.

Where BGTX stands today

It’s not quite where they thought they’d be when things first started up, but that’s in large part because so much has happened since then.

Jeremy Bird, Barack Obama’s former national field organizer, told The Texas Tribune that nearly a year into the creation of Battleground Texas, it has attracted more than 10,000 volunteers, exceeded the Republican Party of Texas in social media followers and has drawn more interest in field organizer “fellow” positions than it has openings currently available.

Battleground was formed last February to register more Democratic voters and turn them out for the party’s candidates, who haven’t won a statewide race since 1994.

“Those things are happening at a way accelerated pace. It’s because there’s an election that’s competitive,’’ Bird said. “But I didn’t think we’d be where we are today a year ago.”

[…]

Battleground has essentially become Davis’ field operation, and the group’s top staffers work side by side at the senator’s headquarters in Fort Worth.

“You know, just to be in the place where there’s a competitive election, and people are actually going to have a choice,” Bird said. “That’s fantastic for me. I didn’t think that would be happening so soon.”

I skipped over a lot of stuff in the story, so go and read it if you want. Much of it recaps current events. I did like the way Bird dismissively characterized James O’Keefe as the liar and convict that he is. Anyway, fun as that is it’s not what I wanted to talk about. Given that BGTX is basically the ground game for Wendy Davis’ campaign, it’s a little strange to recall that their original intent was to start laying the foundation for Texas to be competitive in Presidential years. It’s not a coincidence that Jeremy Bird is also Team Hillary, after all. 2014 wasn’t really on the radar at that time. Then Wendy happened, and now there was something concrete to work towards this year. The anecdotal evidence – voter registration, messaging, fundraising, activist engagement – is positive, but we won’t truly know how effective they’re being till November. The question is how to judge them afterward. They could facilitate big gains for Democrats but still lose every statewide race. Going from 58-40 losses to 50-48 losses would be a huge step forward and would surely put Texas on the map for 2016, which would exceed BGTX’s own stated timetable, but would still mean another statewide shutout and four years of Governor Abbott and his cadre of crazy. Twelve months ago, when all we had was the promise of a future Castro candidacy, that might have seemed like a great stretch goal. Now I daresay people will have decidedly mixed emotions. I’m sure I’ll be deeply conflicted. The best way to avoid those feelings, of course, is to get involved and do everything you can to maximize Democratic performance this fall. Let’s not have a case of the what-ifs and the if-onlys this November.

The preservation ordinance is a work in progress

That’s the tl;dr version of this.

Sue Lovell

Sue Lovell

In October 2010, an emotional Sue Lovell, then a city council­woman, lauded the passage of a strengthened historic preservation ordinance for Houston after a long, complex and divisive battle she and Mayor Annise Parker had led.

In recent months, however, Lovell has appeared before the commissions tasked with implementing the ordinance to lobby on behalf of builders and homeowners seeking to remodel historic homes.

What changed?

Not her support for preservation or for the ordinance, Lovell said. What has shifted, she and others said, is the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission’s interpretation of the rules.

“I fought for this ordinance,” the former councilwoman said, “and I’m going to continue to fight to improve this ordinance.”

[…]

Parker said the ordinance is working well but acknowledged she has concerns with the law’s implementation, saying she sank a lot of political capital into the fight and wants it to work.

“The disconnect is not with the staff, it’s with the architectural and historical commission, which wants to substitute its judgment, on occasion, for that of the staff,” she said. “There are a couple activist commissioners over there who are hijacking the process.”

Historical Commission Chairman Maverick Welsh said the commission’s interpretations shift naturally as members leave and as city staff turn over, but he pointed to the overall approval rate as evidence of the body’s sound decisions.

“There’s this misconception that we’re this unreasonable bunch of preservationist people, but I think the data supports that we’re reasonable,” Welsh said. “I’ve gotten a lot of pushback from neighborhoods saying we’re too lenient and I’m getting pushback from developers saying we should approve everything. Somewhere in there is a balance, and I think that’s what we’re trying to achieve.”

The path forward, Parker said, is to better educate the historical commission’s members and to tweak language in the ordinance to clarify its intent.

Creating objective standards for something that is inherently subjective is hard. You’re not going to get it right the first time. Hopefully, you create a good foundation that you can work with later. See what works, see what doesn’t, learn from experience, and keep refining. It’s an ongoing process, and it will never be truly finished.