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April 8th, 2014:

The farm team

Roll Call takes a look at the Texas Democrats of the future.

Rep. Joaquin Castro

Rep. Joaquin Castro

Democrats rarely fielded competitive Senate candidates over the past two decades — the party’s three best performers in that time span received 44 percent, 43 percent and 43 percent — but that may change by the next midterm cycle. State and national Democrats are gearing up for a competitive Senate bid as early as 2018, when Republican Sen. Ted Cruz is up.

The first potential candidate names out of the mouths of most operatives are the Castro twins, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro and freshman Rep. Joaquin Castro — though there are mixed opinions about which one is more likely to jump. Wendy Davis’ name comes up as well, should she comes up short in this year’s gubernatorial race, and the buzz in some Democratic circles is that Davis’ running mate, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, has as promising a political future as Davis.

Beyond those four, there is a second tier of candidates who could possibly run statewide but don’t quite yet have the same star power. It includes freshman Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who ousted eight-term Rep. Silvestre Reyes in 2012. He is young and attractive, but his geographic base is weak — El Paso is remote and actually closer to the Pacific Ocean than it is to the Louisiana border.

Democrats also named state Reps. Trey Martinez Fischer and Chris Turner as possible statewide contenders and pointed to Houston Mayor Annise Parker, albeit with caution. Parker is openly gay, and some say that while Texas is evolving on a number of issues, gay rights is not likely to be one of them in the immediate future.

We’ve discussed the 2018 election before. Based on her comments so far, I don’t see Mayor Parker as a potential candidate for the US Senate. I see her as a candidate for Governor or Comptroller, assuming those offices are not occupied by Democrats.

Among the future contenders for [Rep. Gene] Green’s seat, Democrats identified state Reps. Armando Walle, Carol Alvarado and Ana Hernandez, plus Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia.

There is perpetual scuttlebutt in the state that [Rep. Lloyd] Doggett is vulnerable to a Hispanic primary challenge. Other Democratic strategists discount that line of thinking, citing Doggett’s war chest and ability to weather whatever lines he’s drawn into.

Whenever he leaves office, Democrats named Martinez Fischer and state Rep. Mike Villarreal as likely contenders. Martinez Fischer could also run in Joaquin Castro’s 20th District if he seeks higher office.

As for Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s Houston-based 18th District, state operatives pointed to state Reps. Sylvester Turner and Garnet F. Coleman, who could also run for Rep. Al Green’s seat.

Working backwards, Rep. Sylvester Turner is running for Mayor in 2015. That would not preclude a future run for Congress, of course, but I doubt it’s on his mind right now. I love Rep. Garnet Coleman, but I’ve never really gotten the impression that he has his eye on Washington, DC. Among other things, he has school-age kids at home, and I’m not sure how much the idea of commuting to DC appeals to him. The same is true for Sen. Rodney Ellis, whose district has a lot of overlap with Rep. Al Green’s CD09. Ellis has by far the biggest campaign warchest among them, which is one reason why I had once suggested he run statewide this year. Beyond them, there’s a long list of current and former elected officials – Ronald Green, Brad Bradford, Jolanda Jones, Wanda Adams, Carroll Robinson, etc etc etc – that would surely express interest in either CD09 or CD18 if it became open. About the only thing that might alter this dynamic is if County Commissioner El Franco Lee decided to retire; the line for that office is longer than I-10.

As for Rep. Gene Green, I’d add Rep. Carol Alvarado and James Rodriguez to the list of people who’d at least consider a run to replace him. I’m less sure about Sheriff Garcia. I think everyone expects him to run for something else someday – he’s starting to get the John Sharp Obligatory Mention treatment – but I have no idea if he has any interest in Congress. And as for Rep. Doggett, all I’ll say is that he’s shown himself to be pretty hard to beat in a primary.

Texas’ 23rd, which includes much of the state’s border with Texas, is the only competitive district in the state and turns over regularly. If Democratic Rep. Pete Gallego lost re-election and Democrats were on the hunt for a new recruit, one could be state Rep. Mary González.

Should 11-term Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson retire, Democrats said attorney Taj Clayton, along with state Reps. Yvonne Davis and Eric Johnson would be likely contenders for her Dallas-based 30th District.

State Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez is also a rising star. But his local seat in the Brownsville-based 34th District is unlikely to open up any time soon — Rep. Filemon Vela, from a well-known family in South Texas, was elected in 2012.

The great hope for Democrats is that continued Texas redistricting litigation will provide an additional majority Hispanic district based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. State Rep. Rafael Anchia is the obvious choice for that hypothetical seat, along with Tarrant County Justice of the Peace Sergio L. De Leon.

And then there are a handful of Texas Democrats who stir up chatter but have no obvious place to run for federal office. Democrats put former state Rep. Mark Strama and Jane Hamilton, the current chief of staff to Rep. Marc Veasey, in this category.

Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Lily Adams, granddaughter of Ann Richards, is a respected political operative in Washington, D.C., and recently earned attention as a possible candidate talent.

I’m rooting for Rep. Gallego to win re-election this fall, but no question I’d love to see Rep. González run for higher office at some point. Taj Clayton ran against Rep. Johnson in 2012, getting support from the Campaign for Primary Accountability (which appears to be in a resting state now), along with Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who also appears in this story as someone to watch. Rep. Anchia is someone I’ve been rooting for and would love to see get a promotion. Mark Strama is off doing Google Fiber in Austin. I have no idea if he’d want to get back in the game – like several other folks I’ve mentioned, he has young kids – but he’s been mentioned as a possible candidate for Mayor in Austin before; if he does re-enter politics, and if he has an eye on something bigger down the line, that would be a good way to go for it. Lily Adams is 27 years old and has never run for any office before, but she’s got an excellent pedigree and has apparently impressed some folks. In baseball terms, she’s tearing up it in short season A ball, but needs to show what she can do on a bigger stage before anyone gets carried away.

Anyway. Stuff like this is necessarily speculative, and that speculation about 2018 is necessarily dependent on what happens this year. If Democrats manage to beat expectations and score some wins, statewide hopefuls may find themselves waiting longer than they might have thought. If Democrats have a crappy year, by which one in which no measurable progress in getting out the vote and narrowing the gap is made, some of these folks may decide they have better things to do in 2018. As for the Congressional understudies, unless they want to go the Beto O’Rourke route and mount a primary challenge to someone, who knows how long they may have to wait. It’s entirely possible all this talk will look silly four years from now. We’ll just have to wait and see.

HISD board votes for Mexican-American studies class

You would think this wouldn’t be a big deal.

Juliet Stipeche

Juliet Stipeche

The Houston school board, representing the largest district in Texas, threw its support Thursday behind the creation of a Mexican-American studies course in Texas public schools.

The 9-0 vote followed some debate over whether the district would appear to be favoring one culture over another.

“Unanimous is beautiful,” advocate Tony Diaz said after the decision.

HISD board president Juliet Stipeche, who brought the resolution to the board, argued the course was important given that Hispanic enrollment in the state’s public schools tops 51 percent.

She asked her fellow trustees and district officials whether they could name five Mexican-American leaders in U.S. history. They struggled to name a fifth.

“It’s not that we don’t care. It’s that we don’t know,” she said.

In Austin [this] week, the State Board of Education plans to discuss developing new elective courses, including a Mexican-American history and culture class for high school students.

You can imagine what will happen when the SBOE gets involved.

On Wednesday, the Texas State Board of Education is expected to vote on developing state curriculum standards for new courses – including, controversially, a high-school elective class in Mexican-American history.

To proponents, the proposal seems to fill an obvious need. Fifty-one percent of Texas’ public-school students are Hispanic. And in the past, the state has created curriculum guidelines for a host of elective classes, including subjects such as floral arrangement, musical theater, landscape design and turf-grass management.

“If we can inspire a child by teaching about Mexican-Americans’ struggles and difficulties, why wouldn’t we do that?” asks Ruben Cortez, D-Brownsville, the state board member who proposed the course.

Opponents – likely in the majority on the Republican-dominated state board – answer that question in many ways.

Some argue that school districts don’t need an official state curriculum to offer the class, and say that the Texas Education Agency is too busy now creating guidelines for other classes required by House Bill 5’s sweeping changes to the state’s graduation requirements.

“I think it is up to the local school districts whether or not to offer a Mexican-American studies course,” board chairman Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, wrote via email. “Several districts in Texas already do.”

Other opponents of Cortez’s proposal believe it’s simply wrong to offer a state-endorsed ethnic-studies course. They say that it undercuts Texan and American identity.

“I’m Irish,” says board member David Bradley, R-Beaumont. “So I’d like to propose an amendment to create an Irish-American Studies class.

He noted that many HISD students speak Urdu: “Why not Indian-American Studies? That may sound silly. But I’m raising a serious point. In Texas public schools, we teach American history and Texas history. We don’t teach Irish-American history and Italian-American history.”

Board member Patricia Hardy, R-Weatherford, said the state already includes a considerable amount of Mexican-American history in the curriculum. A former social-studies teacher, she argues that a Mexican-American studies class would do students a disservice if it displaces other social-studies offerings.

“World geography or world history would be more to a student’s advantage,” she says. “They need more global courses that are broader than Mexican-American.”

I mean, come on. Do we really need to explain why in Texas a more in depth examination of Mexican-American history might be a worthwhile addition to the curriculum? I might have had a bit more patience for the SBOE’s excuses here if it weren’t for the fact that they had previously voted to remove a specific requirement that students learn about the efforts of women and ethnic minorities to gain equal rights, as part of an overall effort to make the social studies curriculum more acceptable to the tender sensibilities of aggrieved right wing interests. It was bad enough that even conservative scholars and Republican legislators were critical of the changes. All this is doing is trying to undo some of that damage. Stace has more.

What the Burnam case is about

I’m still not sure what to think about Rep. Lon Burnam’s electoral challenge against Ramon Romero in HD90.

Rep. Lon Burnam

In a case that election officials statewide are monitoring — because it involves the use of electronic devices such as iPads — attorneys say enough ballots are in question to make a difference in the race Burnam lost by 111 votes to local businessman Ramon Romero Jr.

“We feel like there’s basically voter fraud and illegality that went on out there,” said Art Brender, a local lawyer and former Tarrant County Democratic Party chairman who is on the legal team representing Burnam. “We’ll know pretty soon.”

Romero, a businessman who owns A-Fast Coping Tile and Stone, said he believes this case will be resolved soon — in his favor.

“We didn’t have tablets. What he’s alleging has nothing to do with our campaign,” he said. “I don’t believe there was anything illegal that happened. It is sad that this is where we are. We should be moving forward.”

[…]

Burnam’s lawsuit alleges that some voters in the district were approached by campaign workers who asked them to fill out applications to vote by mail on an electronic device such as an iPad.

Burnam wants to review these applications, saying he believes “that these documents and other testimony will establish beyond question that the computerized-signature operation was illegal and that I won the election.”

His legal challenge claims that of the nearly 5,100 votes cast in this race, 951 were mail-in ballots — more than enough to decide the election.

But his request for copies of all applications for mail-in ballots was rejected Friday during a hearing before state District Judge Robert McFarling of Denton, who recently was appointed to oversee the case.

Ann Diamond with the Tarrant County district attorney’s office argued against releasing all the applications, saying they are not publicly available and they include private information (telephone numbers, addresses and more). About 30 of the forms have been released.

Brender maintains that the records are public information and what he has reviewed already shows that at least three people may have voted twice — once in early voting and once on election day. A review of all the applications could show even more problems and potentially invalidate enough ballots to flip the election results.

McFarling chose to not order the release of that information, saying even if there was a problem with the way a ballot was requested, the vote should still be counted.

And he said there was no proof that data requested would lead to “admissible evidence” in the case.

“You have to have a factual basis … before we start messing with the rights of individuals to vote,” he said. “I don’t think it’s sufficient to say … we think there might be something wrong … and we want to check it out.”

See here and here for the background. I have no opinion on this particular ruling, I’m more interested in the big picture.

A key issue in this case is the use of electronic devices to request mail-in ballots — and whether that’s legal in Texas.

Political observers say the state’s Election Code only addresses electronic signatures at polling places, such as when voters cast their ballot during early voting or on Election Day.

“The use of an iPad to fill out forms to request an absentee ballot would not appear to comply with the letter of state election law, but would appear to be in line with the spirit of the law,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.

“The law simply has not been updated to take account of the rising use of iPads and other mobile devices, leaving a vacuum in the state’s election law.”

Stephen Vickers, chief deputy elections administrator in Tarrant County, said he couldn’t comment on the case because of the pending litigation.

The ultimate ruling in this case may well determine how election officials statewide process mail-in ballots for at least the rest of the year.

“This case also should hopefully spur the Texas Legislature to modify the state’s election law during the 2015 legislative session to allow for the use of electronic devices to complete mail-in ballot request forms,” Jones said. “Perhaps that reform will be the first bill that Rep. Romero files.”

[…]

Officials with both major political parties say they are watching this case.

“We trust the courts will take the issue seriously … [and] determine the best manner in which to proceed,” said Manny Garcia, communications director for the Texas Democratic Party.

Said Republican Party of Texas Chairman Steve Munisteri: “We are interested observers to see what the court rules to see if we are following the law correctly.”

There’s been some trolling about voter ID on this, but of course the voter ID law is only about in person ballots, and this challenge is all about absentee ballots. Technically, it’s not about the ballots themselves, but about the process to request an absentee ballot, and whether an iPad or similar device is allowable under the law as written. By the letter of the law I’d say not, but by the spirit – the law does allow for “telephone facsimile machines” – it’s clearly a Yes. I have no idea how the courts – or the Legislature, if this eventually winds up as an election contest to be adjudicated by the Lege – will rule, but I definitely agree (and have already said) that the law should be updated to allow this usage. There’s no good reason for it not to be allowed. There is good reason to be concerned about the peripheral effects of this case:

Romero said he wasn’t surprised by the lawsuit. But he believes this isn’t something “as Democrats that we should be insinuating.”

“Lots of people came out and were excited about being part of the primary. Now they don’t understand what’s going on,” he said. “They hear words of illegality and that scares people and makes them stay away.

“He should be welcoming me in Austin, helping with the transition. Instead, he’s doing this,” Romero said. “But he has a right to do this and we’re not mad at him. We’ll be down in Austin come January.”

I agree with Romero on this, and if his magnanimity is any indication, he’ll make a fine State Rep if he prevails in this case. Whatever the outcome, let’s make sure we update that law.

Would pot be a cash crop?

The Trib takes a serious look at Kinky Friedman’s campaign platform.

Zonker

Currently, it is illegal to grow and possess marijuana in Texas and most other states, and while hemp is legal for consumption, Texas and most other states do not allow farmers to grow it.

Experts with experience in the legal pot industry in other states, though, say a host of regulatory and environmental factors could complicate any potential benefits growing marijuana might have in Texas.

States that have recently legalized marijuana growing, including Colorado and Washington, have just gotten started, so they are difficult test cases to assess. But in California, where medicinal marijuana cultivation has been legal since 1996 and is plentiful, many farmers say the crop hasn’t been as good for agriculture as Friedman has suggested.

Much of the problems farmers and scientists in California report stem from the fact that under federal law, the plant remains illegal, so states cannot legally regulate its growth as they do other crops.

“Without prohibition, you wouldn’t have this problem,” said Tony Silvaggio, an environmental sociologist at Humboldt State University in California, who has researched the effects of marijuana farming in California.

[…]

“We don’t know anything empirical about what happens when serious professional farmers are allowed to do this,” said Jonathan Caulkins, who has studied the economics of marijuana growth at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College in Pittsburgh. But he suspects the price of marijuana would fall if it was mass produced, which could reduce its demand in the black market and reduce crime.

That doesn’t mean Texas farmers would benefit, though. Marijuana plants are difficult to harvest because the buds must be individually snipped from each plant. That work is labor intensive, and most farm workers today don’t have those skills.

The market for marijuana producers is also unlikely to get very big, Caulkins said, because it’s a high-yield crop. Only about 10,000 acres nationwide would be needed to satisfy the country’s demand, he said. If farmers grow more marijuana, they could oversaturate the market and drive down prices.

Hemp, on the other hand — which comes from the same plant as marijuana but has less THC, the chemical that produces a high — is easier to harvest, and demand in the U.S. is rising. Friedman has suggested that the first step to marijuana legalization is to allow Texans to grow hemp, which is used in a variety of products, from clothing and twine to edible seeds, protein powder and cosmetics such as moisturizers and essential oils.

Hemp has long been legal in Canada, but only a few hundred growers have licenses to produce there, Caulkins said. That doesn’t bode well for predictions of a hemp revolution in Texas that Friedman argues would occur if the state legalized growing it. A Congressional Research Service report on hemp last year came to a similar conclusion, noting that hemp crops can also cross-pollinate with marijuana crops. That means farmers growing hemp could suddenly find that their product has enough THC content to make people high, putting them in the crosshairs with the law — or that marijuana growers’ products would lose their potency.

Even if hemp and marijuana growth become possibilities for Texas farmers, it’s not clear that it would be a moneymaking enterprise. Those who profit most from agricultural production are typically at the end of the supply chain, like grocery stores or bakers, Caulkins said — not farmers.

“The people who are going to make money are going to be the bakeries that buy [it] … and put it into brownies,” he said.

I don’t know, given the local food movement these days, I wouldn’t underestimate the appeal of artisanal, locally-sourced reefers. It’s all in the marketing. Most of the problems cited in the story stem from the federal prohibitions against marijuana. That’s not something Texas can address directly, but just as action by cities tends to lead to a legislative response from the state, I expect that having more states legalize pot in some fashion will lead to changes in federal law. Attitudes about marijuana are shifting, thanks in large part to growing concerns about the cost of the War On Drugs. I won’t be surprised to see some kind of federal action, even if it’s strictly on the incarceration end, by the end of President Obama’s term in office. Texas could almost certainly accelerate that process if it reformed its marijuana laws, even if that just means accommodating medical marijuana. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and if the main obstacle to Kinky Friedman’s fondest dreams is the feds, there are things we can do to affect that.