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January 30th, 2014:

Judicial Q&A: George Barnstone

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. 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. You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2014 Election page.)

George Barnstone

George Barnstone

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

My name is George Barnstone, and I am running Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 10.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

This court hears A & B misdemeanors.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I am running for this bench because I want to change the pipeline for mentally ill vagrants who are arrested for minor misdemeanor charges and sent to the Harris County Jail. The mentally ill need appropriate treatment, not imprisonment where they don’t receive adequate care.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have been an attorney for twenty years, and I am a member of the College of the State Bar.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is important because it is an opportunity to bring new blood with new ideas on how to treat the mentally ill who are arrested for minor criminal charges. Many of those who live on the street are mentally ill. My opponent is part of the machine that has imprisoned people who need help. The way we treat those who are weakest and can’t defend themselves is a very poor reflection of us as a society and the criminal justice system. Shockingly, the largest mental health facility in the state of Texas is the Harris County Jail.

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

People should vote for me in the primary because we cannot afford monetarily or morally to continue the mass incarceration of those who are in need of treatment.

Culberson says he’s killed the University Line

And maybe he has, though it wasn’t going anywhere at this time anyway.

Residents and business owners along Richmond Avenue are breathing a sigh of relief — at least for now — as U.S. Rep. John Culberson has had his way, quashing federal funding for light-rail along Richmond, west of Shepherd, and on Post Oak Boulevard north of Richmond. Rail proponents on the other hand will be disappointed to hear that Culberson succeeded in getting the key amendment tacked onto the transportation leg of the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill recently passed by the Senate.

“I’m very proud to have been able to protect Richmond and Post Oak from being destroyed as Fannin and Main Street were destroyed,” Culberson told CultureMap following a fundraising luncheon at Tony’s, which not so coincidentally is located on Richmond.

Culberson trumped METRO in his long-running feud with the local transportation agency. He has been threatening and attempting to get his law passed for several years. “It’s a permanent federal statutory law. So it’s a felony if any governmental entities attempt to spend any federal money to push rail on those routes,” he said.

METRO board chairman Gilbert Garcia called the move “very disappointing.” He noted, however, “This is not our focus. We’ve got a full plate right now and we are not taking steps to complete the University Line. First and foremost, we want to complete the other two lines, get time under them.”

The water is muddy on the potential for future federal monies for rail along Richmond and Post Oak Boulevard. Culberson says the federal funding prohibition is permanent. “This is the end of all federal funding on Richmond,” he said.

I’m pretty sure Culberson, who tried this trick before, does not have the power to tell future Congresses what they can and cannot do. Congress will pass other budget and appropriations bills after this one, so some pro-University Line member of Congress, like maybe Rep. Ted Poe, could get an amendment in there to undo what Culberson did. Doing something is certainly harder than stopping something that hasn’t been done, so Culberson has the advantage now, but it’s not the final word. Despite his protestations about the popularity of rail on Richmond, opposing its construction has not been an electoral winner in the precincts along the proposed line. Perhaps this will galvanize rail proponents and they will help defeat Culberson in an election; a future Republican primary is the more likely path for that, but anything could happen. Perhaps Metro and the other stakeholders will get tired of Culberson’s act and find their own funding. The options aren’t great, but they never have been. The point is that the fight isn’t over just because Culberson says it is.

One more thing:

Not completely opposed to rail, Culberson noted that he has already begun working with Congressman Al Green on possible rail connections from Fort Bend County and that he would support the US 90A southwest rail corridor. On another potential east-west light rail route, Culberson said, “West Park would be perfect. They have the right of way.”

That was news to Garcia. “We would welcome him to shift his approach,” Garcia said. “That would be new information to me. If he told you that, that would be great.”

I suspect Culberson is peddling snake oil here, but let’s take him at his word for the sake of argument. Westpark only runs as far east as Kirby, and east of Shepherd you’re literally in people’s backyards. How do you connect the east end of the line at Montrose to the proposed Westpark part of it? That subject came up in 2006 and the non-Richmond options generated a lot of neighborhood opposition as well as some creative but impractically expensive solutions. Even if there is an affordable way to do this that the area residents would support, the simple fact remains that Richmond is where the people are, and Westpark isn’t. Getting to Richmond from Westpark or vice versa means walking under US59, which is not terribly appealing from a pedestrian perspective. Putting it another way, rail on Westpark will have lower ridership and thus be less useful. Why would we want to do that? If the choice truly is “Westpark” or nothing, then “Westpark” is better, warts and all. I see no harm in Gilbert Garcia giving Culberson a call and seeing if he’s willing to put some money where his big mouth is. I don’t think he means it, and even if he does I don’t think it’s the right answer, as I don’t think this fight is over. But let’s go ahead and find out, so we at least know what’s on the table. Link via Swamplot.

How the voter ID law was and was not enforced in Harris County

Greg does some investigative reporting on how the new voter ID law was actually applied in Harris County in the 2013 election.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

So what percentage of voters ended up signing an affidavit? … and what does it suggest about how the law was administered?

To get that answer, I obtained records from the Harris County Clerk and commenced tabulating the data. I’ll be spelling out some of these results in the days ahead. For now, here’s the big-ticket takeaway: voters in Harris County were qualified to vote by election workers in extremely different ways depending on the location that the voter voted at. In several locations, the law was followed in a manner as close to thorough as might be humanly possible. In others, it didn’t appear that election workers had gotten the figurative memo about the new law. In a plurality of Early Vote locations, the results were mixed.

For introductory purposes, a small sketch of the data: Trini Mendenhall Sosa Community Center in Spring Branch had signed affidavits from 0.43% (as in less than 1%) of its voters. Meanwhile, neighboring West Gray Multi-Service Center saw 15.1% of its voters sign affidavits. In other words: if you wanted to experience “no problem” with the law, then Sosa was the place for you to go vote. If you wish to subject yourself to more scrutiny by election workers, then head to West Gray. Discrepancies like this were rampant in Harris County. And I’m willing to guess that it’s not the way that architects of the law intended it to be administered.

What I find interesting about these results is that, for all intents and purposes, nobody can say for certain that the new law was followed in any kind of meaningful way. It’s that conclusion that makes it impossible to say “there was no problem” with the law since the law effectively wasn’t administered. I have little doubt that election workers knew to ask for a photo ID and that there may, indeed, be only the most minor of problems exhibited with this task during a low-turnout election. But if election workers weren’t checking the names on the ID against the names on the voting rolls, then there should be no assurance that they were doing anything meaningful with those IDs.

Through the remainder of this week, I’ll be rolling out some of the findings, and raw data to demonstrate how this played out in Harris County. Ultimately, I think there are findings that are likely to concern both advocates of the law as well as opponents. And while I’m not a believer in the necessity of the law, I think there are several things to review before the law goes full scale in a Presidential year.

Read the whole thing. Greg was an Election Clerk this year, so he got that training he’s talking about, and he is a staffer for State Rep. Gene Wu, so he’s in a position to help influence any potential changes to this law, assuming it doesn’t eventually get thrown out by the courts. For my own experience, I voted early twice at the West Gray location, once in the November election and once in the December runoff. In November I showed my ID and voted as always, no muss and no fuss. In December, the election clerk at West Gray noticed that my voter reg card has my full middle name and my “III” suffix while my drivers license has just my middle initial and no suffix, and had me sign the affidavit. So even at the same location, there were variations. I look forward to seeing the rest of Greg’s data.

Texas blog roundup for the week of January 27

The Texas Progressive Alliance is ready to delete the phrase “polar vortex” from its vocabulary as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

You know you’re not supposed to do fundraising activities while in your official capacity, right?

Oops.

Shelli Miller

[On Wednesday], the Texas Democratic Party called on Rockwall County Clerk, Republican Shelli Miller, to close down the illegal campaign fundraising operation she is running within her official office to benefit a February 1st event featuring keynote speaker, Attorney General Greg Abbott.

Conducting campaign activities out of an official office is a direct violation of state law, punishable by a fine of up to $4,000 and up to a year in jail.

The Texas Democratic Party also called for an independent investigator to be named to conduct a formal criminal investigation.

Here’s What Happened

Republican Shelli Miller has been using her office and office employees to arrange for the purchase and pickup of tickets to a GOP fundraising event. Greg Abbott is the keynote speaker at the event, which will benefit him and other Republican candidates.

The Lone Star Project has confirmed the illegal activity by obtaining audio recordings of Shelli Miller and at least one other county employee arranging for the purchase and pickup of tickets to the GOP/Abbott event.

The use of official resources for political purposes is a violation of a number of state laws. For instance, it is illegal to accept political donations in certain government buildings under TEX. ELEC. CODE. § 253.039.

It is likely–if not certain–that Greg Abbott and/or someone on his staff was aware of the illegal activity. An independent investigation is required to assure proper enforcement of the laws broken by Rockwall County Republicans and perhaps by the Abbott Campaign itself.

Click over to hear the audio. As I drafted this last night, the only news coverage I saw of this was on the Rockwall Herald Banner and NPR station KETR, both of whom add a bit to the LSP report. We’ll see where it goes from here. BOR has more.

UPDATE: The DMN has a small story that doesn’t add anything new.