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May 22nd, 2014:

The case against Castro for HUD

While we wait for further word on San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro’s reported appointment to be Secretary of HUD – he is keeping quiet about it for now – it’s worth considering some of the political implications behind it. Brian Beutler does the honors.

Mayor Julian Castro

Castro is currently the Mayor of San Antonio, an office with relatively little power, but one that suggests a longer path toward national prominence that runs through the Texas governor’s mansion. A HUD nomination would constitute a pretty significant detour. And I think there are three ways to look at the decision—one optimistic, one strategic, and one shortsighted—any of which could explain why Castro, Obama, and party strategists think this is a wise move.

An idealist might look at this and say the country has turned an important corner, around which heading a government agency tasked with providing services to low-income communities is no longer a political anvil around the neck. Or at least that today’s Democrats are hoping to turn that corner.

A cynic, by contrast, would look ahead to 2016 and see a Democratic field that lacks seasoned Hispanic stars. Could Hillary Clinton (or whomever) pick a mayor of a medium-large city as her running mate? There’s a real logic to priming Castro by placing him in the cabinet now.

But a pessimist would note that Obama has a frustrating tendency to pluck star Democrats out of red states and place them in his cabinet where their political prospects quickly erode. Castro’s prospective nomination coincides with a growing recognition that Obama’s probably not going to sign an immigration reform bill, and is looking for other ways to maintain the Democrats’ huge edge in immigrant communities.

It should be noted that one of the top competitors to Castro for the VP slot on the Hillary Clinton 2016 ticket is Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the former Governor of Iowa who was appointed to that post in 2009. In other words, being in Obama’s Cabinet isn’t necessarily a death knell for one’s future political ambitions. (See also: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. I’m just saying.) The grumbling about “plucking star Democrats out of red states” mostly had to do with taking potential Senate candidates off the board for 2010 than anything else – think Janet Napolitano, who might have challenged John McCain; Kathleen Sebelius, who could have run against Pat Roberts; and Vilsack, who might have taken on Chuck Grassley. The theory was that without a credible Democratic opponent, these guys had free rein to be as obstructionist on the Affordable Care Act during the endless legislative summer of 2009. It was a sensible-sounding theory at the time, but in retrospect surely we can see that it didn’t hold water. Putting aside the disastrous election results of 2010, we now know that the the main force affecting Republican legislative behavior was and very much continues to be the threat of being primaried as a RINO. Republicans these days, and this definitely goes back to 2010, fear their base much more than they fear the November electorate. I get the frustration, but there’s not much empirical evidence of actual damage done.

As far as Julian Castro goes, being HUD Secretary is likely to help him get on the 2016 ticket than run for statewide office in 2018. Not because of any taint from having served in the Obama Administration – he was a keynote speaker at the 2012 DNC and did a ton of campaigning for Obama in 2012 as well; he’s already as tainted as he’s going to be, and even if he wasn’t the Republican’s would act as if he were anyway – but because I think he’d be better served building up his record of achievement in San Antonio. Honestly, though, it probably doesn’t make much difference one way or the other. If Castro is available to run for something in 2018, then the combination of demography and the efforts of Battleground Texas will have more to do with his likelihood of success than his most recent job title. He’s already got the resume, the star power, and the fundraising connections. As long as he can avoid screwing up or getting caught by a scandal, he’ll be in as good shape as he can hope to be in.

Meet your “education reform” groups

The Observer provides a primer.

For 20 years, Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR) has been protecting our hospitals and business leaders from meddling trial lawyers, convincing the Texas Legislature to cap damage awards and closing the courthouse doors to some potential plaintiffs. For two decades, TLR has been wildly successful, perhaps the most successful special interest in Texas. Having conquered the civil justice system, TLR is moving on—to education.

Texans for Education Reform launched midway through the 2013 legislative session, and shares lobbyists, board members and a spokeswoman with TLR. (TLR president Dick Trabulsi, for example, sits on the school reform group’s board.) The two groups also share a few of the same deep-pocketed donors, wealthy individuals like Dick Weekley, Ray Hunt and Doug Foshee who helped the education group raise nearly $1 million for its new political action committee. Just under $200,000 was distributed to candidates ahead of the March primary.

It might seem strange that Texas’ preeminent tort reform advocates have taken a keen interest in public schools, of all things. But TLR’s move into education mirrors a nationwide trend over roughly the last decade: Advocacy groups and business leaders have spent big money trying to apply business principles to schools, a particular brand of school reform built around school choice and fewer job protections for teachers.

[…]

Texans for Education Reform emerged last year to make up for lost time and to shake schools from the status quo. “Most of the other interest groups in this space weren’t advancing agendas; they were restricting bills,” Texans for Education Reform consultant Anthony Holm told the Texas Tribune last year. The group dispatched 19 lobbyists to the Texas Capitol, many of them highly paid, pushing charter school expansion, online learning and state takeover of low-performing schools. Texans for Public Justice noted the group was the 2013 session’s most formidable newcomer, debuting by spending as much as $1.2 million on lobbyists like former Senate education chairwoman Florence Shapiro, Rick Perry’s old friend Mike Toomey, and Adam Jones, a former deputy education commissioner.

The group’s spokeswoman, Sherry Sylvester, declined to discuss what the group will go after next session, offering only that it will advocate “research-proven reforms that empower parents, reinforce local control and provide pathways for intervention in chronically failing schools within a morally responsible timeline.”

Whatever that means, Texans for Education Reform will likely find itself in agreement with Democrats for Education Reform, which recently launched a chapter in Texas. That group—through a spinoff group called Education Reform Now Advocacy—has already distinguished itself as Texas’ No. 2 “dark money” spender in this year’s elections. Dark money is cash culled from undisclosed, usually corporate, contributors. In a flurry this spring, Democrats for Education Reform dropped $114,000 in anonymous cash on phone banks and mailers supporting four candidates: El Paso Reps. Marisa Marquez and Naomi Gonzalez; Ramon Romero, who upset longtime Fort Worth Rep. Lon Burnam in March; and Erika Beltran, a Teach for America alum who’s worked on school reform in Dallas, in a race for the State Board of Education.

[…]

Democrats for Education Reform has been around for years, with support from multi-billion dollar hedge fund managers. But its Texas branch is just getting started, led by Jennifer Koppel, whose past titles include vice president for growth at the IDEA charter school chain. Koppel says she’s still forming the group’s Texas-specific strategy. “We are definitely still trying to think about where we’ll get involved legislatively,” she tells the Observer, but that they’ll support candidates who’ve been engaged with school reform issues and aren’t “beholden to the old way of doing things.”

Texans for Education Reform may have the power of the Texas GOP establishment behind it, but Democrats for Education Reform’s national scope gives the group a different sort of strength. Koppel speculates her group might take Texas lawmakers to see school reforms in action in other states.

“For Democrats there is this constant questioning to say, ‘Are we doing the right thing?’” she says. “And they’re asking these questions. It’s hard in a vacuum to build that confidence.”

While conservative groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation have embraced school choice from a free-market perspective, Koppel says there’s a simple reason Democrats should be enthusiastic about reform: “You’re looking at the places where these failing schools are, and they’re overwhelmingly places that are represented by Democrats. And you wonder where the disconnect is.”

Let’s start by stating the obvious: Texans for Lawsuit Reform is a malignant force in our politics, and any effort that is associated with them should be treated with deep suspicion, if not outright hostility. It’s always possible that they could end up on the right side of a given issue, but those cases are highly likely to be exceptional, and one should not lower one’s guard without a long and sustained demonstration of good faith on their part. Seriously, as much as possible, stay away.

As far as Democrats for Education Reform is concerned, the picture is a bit murkier. This is an area of often strong disagreement among people that otherwise agree on a lot of things. A lot of the dispute is about strategy and solutions, since for the most part there is common ground on what the problems are and what the goals, broadly speaking, ought to be. It’s a rift within Democratic circles that isn’t going away. Still, any time “dark money” is involved there’s ample reason for mistrust, and until Democrats for Education Reform articulate an agenda, it’s hard to know what to think. Keep your eyes and ears open and we’ll assess as we go.

The cars in the bayous

Boy, does this sound like a great opening to a crime novel.

Houston’s bayous, dotted by marshy banks and filled with bass and catfish, weave through the city, providing an appealing landscape for joggers and cyclists. But beneath the murky, brown waters is something not as pleasant: a makeshift dumping ground of cars, trucks and vans.

Tim Miller, director of Texas Equusearch, said his volunteer crews have evidence that 127 vehicles are submerged in the bayous. Miller said there are potential environmental and safety hazards of having cars corroding the city’s waterways.

“Houston is known as the Bayou City. I know millions of dollars are spent on the banks of the bayous to make it beautiful,” said Miller, who founded the nonprofit search and rescue organization in 2000. “But we’ve got a big problem with what’s underneath the water.”

Texas Equusearch crews found the vehicles while assisting the Houston Police Department with a search for 82-year-old Lillian High in October 2011. Her body was found inside a rented Dodge Avenger that had plunged into the pond a few miles from her Houston home.

During that search Miller said the organization’s sonar equipment discovered vehicles in Sims, Braes and Buffalo bayous.

In recent months, Miller said many bodies have been discovered in vehicles in Texas and around the country, compelling him to go public with the information. He cited two cases from April, one in which police in South Dakota found the bodies of two teens who disappeared 42 years ago. Later that month, police found skeletal remains inside a truck recovered from a North Texas lake of a woman missing for 35 years.

“Families would call me whose loved ones were still missing, and they’d see these kinds of stories and ask me if there is any chance that their (family members) could be under there, since their loved ones hadn’t been found,” he said. “It was just like, you know what, we’ve got to do something, we just have to.”

HPD says the know all about the cars and they dispute the claim that there could be bodies in one or more of them. I have no opinion about that, but I do think from an environmental point of view that we ought to do what we can to get these cars out of there. They can’t be doing any good down there. Let’s figure out how much it might cost, then see if we can come up with an action plan. Swamplot has more.

Texas blog roundup for the week of May 19

The Texas Progressive Alliance celebrates the ten-year anniversary of same sex marriages in America – which, at last report, was still standing – as it bring you this week’s roundup.

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