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May 23rd, 2016:

Overview of the Commissioners Court Precinct 1 “race”

I put “race” in quotes because it’s not like any other race you’v ever seen.

El Franco Lee

The campaign for the next Harris County Precinct 1 commissioner appears in many ways like any other: candidates are raising money, seeking endorsements and sending out targeted mailers touting their credentials.

But this is not a typical election, and voters won’t be heading to the ballot box. Instead, the task of picking a commissioner who will represent 1.2 million people – more than the populations of nine states – and control a $200 million budget falls to a group of 125 Democratic precinct chairs.

That’s because longtime Commissioner El Franco Lee’s name remained on the March 1 primary ballot after his death in early January, leaving the precinct chairs to select the party’s new nominee, who will be unopposed in November.

The unusual nature of the nominating process means the campaign is less democratic than most local elections and far more intimate – built around in-depth policy conversations and targeted wooing of party insiders.

Example: The presumed frontrunners, Rodney Ellis and Gene Locke, both sent flowers to female precinct chairs for Mother’s Day.

[…]

City Councilman Dwight Boykins has not formally announced his candidacy, citing concern that he could forfeit his municipal office by doing so. But he has been actively campaigning for the job.

Because voters last November extended the terms of Houston elected officials to four years, from two, those who become a candidate for another office now are subject to the so-called “resign-to-run” provision of the Texas Constitution, which applies to municipal officeholders with terms longer than two years. Though a Texas attorney general opinion issued in 2000 states that running for the nomination of a political party’s executive committee does not prompt an automatic resignation, the courts have yet to formally resolve the issue.

“My best bet is that the courts would rule that (then-Attorney General John) Cornyn is correct and you don’t trigger resign-to-run by seeking the nomination of the executive committee,” former Harris County Democratic Party Chair Gerry Birnberg said. However, he added, “Until the courts decide the issue, there is no way to say for sure, definitively, that Attorney General Cornyn was correct.”

So Boykins and other interested council members – Jerry Davis and Larry Green – have approached the campaign gingerly.

“I can neither admit or deny my interest in the seat because of the way the current law is drafted,” Green said recently. “However, I can say I have been approached by several precinct judges and other community members requesting that I do move forward in trying to run for the seat.”

It’s a good overview of the process, so give it a read and familiarize yourself. I spoke to Chron reporter Rebecca Elliott on Thursday, but much like Kevin Costner in The Big Chill, my role was left on the cutting room floor. One point I want to address in this story, which is as much about the great power that’s been bestowed on some 125 precinct chairs as anything, is the question of how this process could have been done differently. One precinct chair called for a special election instead of the current process. That has some intuitive appeal, but remember, we’re not actually picking a County Commissioner. We’re picking a Democratic nominee for County Commissioner. There’s no provision in the law for a special party primary election, and I’m not sure how you could conduct one in a way that mimicked an actual primary election. Those are technically open elections, but everyone who participates has to choose which primary they want to vote in. How do you ensure conditions like that in a special election environment? Remember also, we precinct chairs – not just the 125 or so of us in Precinct 1, but the 500 or so of us in all of Harris County – are also selecting nominees for two judicial races. There’s basically no concern about us doing that, in part for the obvious reason that those offices have far less power, but also because those nominees will have contested races against Republicans in November, and unlike the Commissioners Court race there’s no guarantee they’ll win. The concern about the un-democratic nature of this process is, in my opinion, entirely about the nature of the office of Commissioners Court, which has vast power and not a whole lot of electoral accountability under normal circumstances. It’s about the office, not the process. Fixing the process in some way, if there is a way, can’t address that.

I should also point out that as weird as this process is, it could be worse. For one, if the late Commissioner Lee had died next January after being elected and sworn in, instead of this January after the filing deadline had passed, then Judge Ed Emmett would have been able to not only pick a replacement as he did to fill out the last year of Lee’s term, but that replacement would have been able to file for election himself in 2018, and would almost certainly have cruised to an easy win. This is what happened with Jerry Eversole (who resigned after the 2010 election) and now-Commissioner Jack Cagle. At least here, it’s Democrats who are picking the replacement. Yes, we’d have gotten a shot at that person in the next primary, but that could mean nearly two years of a Commissioner in the most Democratic precinct in the county being chosen by a Republican County Judge, and an awful lot can happen in two years. We got lucky here, in that Judge Emmett is an honorable man, and his choice for this year of Commissioner Locke was a good one. But there was and would have been nothing to stop a less honorable Judge from picking whatever hack or crony he wanted to. It could have been worse, that’s all I’m saying.

One more thing:

If Ellis earns the Democratic Party’s nod for commissioner, the party would need to convene another executive committee meeting to find a replacement for him on the ballot for state senator – and quickly, as all nominations must be completed by late August.

The angling has already begun.

“Of course anybody in the (Texas) House – or any other position for that matter – is going to look at that position as something to move to, and so I fall in that category of looking at it as a possibility,” said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, one of several politicians who have already expressed interest in Ellis’s seat. “These seats don’t change hands very often, and more than likely, whomever is selected to be the nominee for the Democratic Party, they’re going to be there for a long time.”

Naming Sen. Ellis to fill the nomination ensures at least one more round of this selection process, with the precinct chairs in SD13 moving onto the hot spot. (That does not include me, as I am in SD15.) And if the precinct chairs of SD13 select a State Rep to fill the slot left vacant by Ellis – at the very least, Reps. Coleman, Thompson, and Miles are waiting in the wings – then we get to do this a third time. There is an argument to be made that selecting Commissioner Locke to run for the seat in November puts an end to that process. Whether one considers that a pro or a con is a matter of personal preference.

Feds rescind Universities line funding

Not a surprise at this point.

A proposal for a light rail line along Richmond Avenue, long left for dead because of strong opposition and years of languishing, has lost its shot now for funding from the Federal Transit Administration.

In a letter released Friday by U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, FTA associate administrator Lucy Garliauskas confirmed federal money is no longer available for the University Line light rail project “due to inactivity and lack of demonstrated progress on the project’s design and local financial commitment over the last several years.”

Culberson, a long-time opponent of the line proposed in his west Houston district because it runs along Richmond, applauded the decision.

“My primary responsibilities as a congressman include protecting the taxpayers and protecting the quality of life in our neighborhoods,” Culberson said in a statement.

[…]

The effect is limited, however, because the University Line plan had been bogged down for years, and could be revived at any time should Metropolitan Transit Authority restart the process and gain voter approval for more transit funding.

Metro officials received notice of the funding recision earlier this month, spokesman Jerome Gray said.

“I am not sure it does anything with the project because the project was dormant,” Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

[…]

Culberson and Metro officials last year came to an agreement that any further rail development using federal funds in the Houston region first will go back to the voters. If Metro receives approval and the local money needed, transit officials could go back to Washington looking for funding.

Patman, who took over as Metro chairwoman last month, said inaction on the University Line should not be construed as the end of a broader discussion about better transit in Montrose and along U.S. 59.

“A corridor between downtown and the Galleria and Post Oak is a priority, and I expect that to be a part of the regional transportation plan,” Patman said, referring to Metro’s interest in assessing area-wide bus and rail needs. “We are looking at alternatives, of course, to going down Richmond… And we’re looking at what mode would be best.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background on the Culberson/Metro peace accord, which was announced just over a year ago. Because of the terms of that agreement, Metro was always going to have to go back to the voters to get a Universities line going, and in fact then-Metro Chair Gilbert Garcia, who negotiated the treaty with Culberson, was already talking about a sequel to the 2003 rail referendum. New Chair Carrin Patman has also spoken of a need to go back to the voters for more bonding authority. If I had to guess, such a vote is a couple of years out, almost certainly after Mayor Turner has had one to repeal or modify the revenue cap. When that happens, if it passes, Metro will have to start from scratch, including the designation of an actual route, but given how old the existing work was by now, that’s probably for the best anyway. I choose not to cry over spilled milk but to work for a better outcome next time.

Two things to think about as we look towards that hoped-for future day. First, here’s a Google Earth view of the area around Westpark at Newcastle:

Westpark at Newcastle

Westpark at Newcastle

The original Universities line route had shifted over to Westpark at Timmins, so the line was on Westpark at this point, and there would likely have been a stop at Newcastle. (My in-laws live near there, so I’m quite familiar with this area.) Notice all the apartments west of Newcastle and south of Westpark, as well as the HCC campus. Those would all be easily accessible from a train station at Westpark and Newcastle, except for one tiny thing: There’s no sidewalk on Newcastle south of Westpark. Any pedestrians would have to walk in the street, which is a two-lanes-each-way thoroughfare, or on the grass. Once you cross into the city of Bellaire, just south of Glenmont Drive, there’s a beautiful, wide sidewalk that’s basically a hike-and-bike trail that goes all the way to Braeswood, but until you get there you’re on your own if you’re on your feet. What you could do is move the fence back ten feet or so on the empty lot on the south side of Newcastle – I suspect this is Centerpoint property; the lot on the north side of Newcastle has power grid equipment on it – and build a nice sidewalk there to at least get you to Pin Oak Park, which has its own sidewalks and can get you to the other places from there. The Westmore apartment complex between Pin Oak Park and Glenmont fronts on the street so you’d have to close off a lane on Newcastle to extend this hypothetical sidewalk further, but it’s not like this is a heavily-trafficked section of road. It’s all doable if one has eminent domain power and a reason to take action. If we’re going to talk about near-future rail referenda and Universities Line 2.0, I hope someone other than me is thinking about this sort of thing as well.

Second, among the things that Culberson and Metro agreed upon last year were the following:

Second, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to change federal law so that METRO can use all of the federal dollars not yet drawn down from the $900 million in previously approved federal transit grants for corridor specific transit projects, particularly the new North and Southeast rail lines as well as the 90A commuter rail line. These proposed changes will be consistent with the goals of the FTA in order to allow METRO to match these funds with credits from the original Main Street Line or other Transportation Development Credits so that local funds will be freed up for new projects to improve mobility in the Houston area.

Third, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to change federal law so that METRO can count $587 Million in local funds spent on the East End Rail Line as the local matching credit for a commuter rail line along 90A, and secondarily for any non-rail capital project, or any other project included in the 2003 Referendum. Rail on Richmond Avenue west of Shepherd Drive or Post Oak Boulevard would only be eligible to utilize these credits once approved in a subsequent referendum.

Fourth, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to help secure up to $100 million in federal funds for three consecutive years for bus purchases, park and ride expansion and HOV lane improvements. These funds will also facilitate METRO’s expanded use of the 2012 referendum increment to pay down debt. All of these efforts will enhance and improve the bus system that is already one of the best in the nation.

Anyone know if any of these things are happening or have happened? I would hate to think that Congressman Culberson has not kept his word. An update on these items would be nice to hear.

Judge Hanen’s bizarre order

WTF?

A federal judge with a history of anti-immigrant sentiment ordered the federal government to turn over the names, addresses and “all available contact information” of over 100,000 immigrants living within the United States. He does so in a strange order that quotes extensively from movie scripts and that alleges a conspiracy of attorneys “somewhere in the halls of the Justice Department whose identities are unknown to this Court.”

It appears to be, as several immigration advocates noted shortly after the order was handed down, an effort to intimidate immigrants who benefit from certain Obama administration programs from participating in those programs, lest their personal information be turned over to people who wish them harm. As Greisa Martinez, Advocacy Director for United We Dream, said in a statement, the judge is “asking for the personal information of young people just to whip up fear” — fear, no doubt, of what could happen if anti-immigrant state officials got their hands on this information. Or if the information became public.

The judge is Andrew Hanen, who conservative attorneys opposed to President Obama’s immigration policies appear to have sought out specifically because of his belief that America does not treat immigrants with sufficient hostility.Texas v. United States was filed shortly after President Obama announced policy changes that would permit close to 5 million undocumented immigrants to temporarily work and remain in the country. As the name of the case suggests, the lead plaintiff is the State of Texas, yet the Texas Attorney General’s office did not file this case in Austin, the state’s capitol. Instead, they filed it over five hours away in the town of Brownsville.

At the time, only one active federal judge, Judge Hanen, sat in Brownsville, so the attorneys’ decision to file their case nearly 300 miles away meant that it was highly likely that the case would be assigned to a judge that once accused federal officials of engaging in a “dangerous course of action” because they permitted an undocumented mother to be reunited with her child without facing criminal charges. Hanen later issued a nationwide order halting the Obama administration’s new policies.

[…]

The legality of DAPA and this expansion of DACA (but not the underlying DACA program itself) are now before the Supreme Court.

Hanen’s doxing order arises out of a third, less consequential policy change described in the DHS directive. Before the directive, DACA beneficiaries had to reapply every two years. Under the directive, they need to reapply every three years.

At an early stage in the litigation, the plaintiffs’ attorneys and Judge Hanen asked Justice Department lawyers whether aspects of the directive would be implemented prior to a January hearing date, and the DOJ attorneys responded that “I really would not expect anything between now and the date of the hearing.” The Justice Department made similar statements at later points in the case. At that time, DAPA and expanded DACA were not yet being implemented, but the shift from two years between DACA renewals to three years was already under way.

Hanen claims that the Justice Department attorneys intentionally deceived him by not mentioning the fact that the amount of time afforded to DACA beneficiaries had changed. The Justice Department claims that, at most, they misunderstood what Hanen was asking for. They believed that Hanen was only asking about the dates when DAPA and expanded DACA would be implemented, and not about the shift from two to three years. This distinction matters because, while deliberately misleading a court is a very serious ethical breach, misunderstanding a question is not.

In a brief filed in Hanen’s court, the Justice Department attorneys offer their version of events.

[…]

Hanen’s order calls for two sets of sanctions against the Justice Department. The first requires the government to turn over the personal information — including addresses — of every single one of the more than 100,000 DACA beneficiaries that received a three-year renewal or approval. Though Hanen will initially keep this information under seal, he adds that he shall “on a showing of good cause . . . release the list or a portion thereof to” state authorities in one of the 26 states that sued the administration to halt DAPA and expanded DACA.

Additionally, Hanen ordered potentially hundreds of attorneys to attend remedial courses, regardless of whether those lawyers have ever appeared in his courtroom or even set foot in the state of Texas. Under his order, every single lawyer “employed at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. who appears, or seeks to appear, in a court (state or federal) in any of the 26 Plaintiff States” must “annually attend a legal ethics course.” The Attorney General must appoint someone to provide annual reports to Hanen for five years, which must include “the name of the lawyer, the court in which the individual appeared, the date of the appearance and the time and location of the ethics program attended.” And, in case that’s not enough, he also ordered the Attorney General herself to “report to this Court in sixty (60) days with a comprehensive plan to prevent” the alleged misconduct that Hanen believes happened in his courtroom “from ever occurring again.”

The Justice Department will almost certainly appeal Hanen’s order to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit or, if necessary, the Supreme Court. Unfortunately for DOJ, the Fifth Circuit is a conservative court and the Texas case has twice wound up in front of an especially conservative panel of Fifth Circuit judges. One of these judges has his own history of issuing questionable sanctions against the Obama administration.

Nevertheless, Hanen’s order is sufficiently unusual that it may cause even these judges to blink. Judges, after all, are lawyers. And many of them know what it is like to be on the receiving end of a judge who seems to have it in for you.

See here and here for lots of background. I have no idea what to make of this, but good Lord this judge is a mess. Daily Kos has more.

The Sheriff and Lord High Executioner of Edwards County

In case you haven’t already, you really need to read this:

The first thing she noticed was Sheriff Pamela Elliott standing across the street. It was an August evening in 2014, and Rachel Gallegos had just gotten home for a meeting of the Edwards County Democratic Party. The law enforcement official was a highly unlikely candidate for a session with local Democrats. Edwards County — Rocksprings is the county seat — is solidly Republican, and Elliott is militantly conservative.

There were cars everywhere — on the street, blocking the road, even parked in Gallegos’ yard, about 30 people in all. “They were the sheriff’s staff — some in plain clothes, some in uniform,” Gallegos recalls. “There were dispatchers, jailers, friends, supporters — anyone, it seemed, that Sheriff Elliott could gather up.”

Ten minutes after the start of the meeting, all four of the executive committee members in Gallegos’ house were gabbing about the posse amassed outside. Then there was a loud knock at the door — Sheriff Elliott. “She came to the door in uniform and was about to come in, so I held the door and said, ‘May I help you?’” Gallegos says.

According to Gallegos, Elliott said she had a right to attend the meeting and that she’d received permission from the Texas attorney general to be there under the Open Meetings Act. “She held her boot in the door and I told her to have him call me — that if he said she could be there I’d let her in,” Gallegos says. “And nobody ever called me, of course.”

Caroline Ramirez, who dropped her husband off at the meeting, described the crowd outside as an “angry mob.” Later, she would state in a written complaint submitted to the attorney general, the secretary of state and the district attorney that she “was shocked that [Elliott] was in uniform but wasn’t doing anything to control the crowd, keep the peace, or protect them or us. She seemed to be encouraging the mob. I wanted to call someone, but I had no idea who I should call if the head of our law enforcement is part of the problem.”

In her own complaint, Gallegos wrote, “I can no longer assume that our Sheriff and her department will act as Peace Officers. I need some guidance as to how to protect myself.”

A month later, she received an email from Timothy Juro, an attorney in the Texas Secretary of State’s office. He confirmed that a meeting of the local party’s executive committee would not fall under the Open Meetings Act.

Gallegos believes Elliott’s sole purpose was to intimidate Democratic voters in an upcoming election for Edwards County judge. Souli Shanklin, a Republican, was Elliott’s ally, and Ricky Martinez, the Democrat, was expected to do well. Gallegos says law enforcement outside her house could have influenced the vote by making people in town think the Democrats were up to no good, or even doing something illegal. Martinez ended up losing, with 46 percent of the vote.

Andrew Barnebey, the former chair of the Edwards County Democratic Party and current county commissioner, likewise sees ulterior motives. He said it was “ridiculous” for Elliott, a Republican, and her allies to believe they had a legal right to attend a Democratic Party meeting in a private home. Equally absurd, he said, is the idea that “these folks would want to barge in to listen to this little bit of housekeeping.”

Buck Wood, an Austin attorney who has practiced election law in Texas for 45 years, says it amounts to harassment. “It’s intimidation and illegal use of the sheriff ’s office powers,” he says. “It sounds like somebody needs to bring a lawsuit, because she sounds like she’s totally out of control. It may even be abuse of office, and if so, could be a criminal offense.”

Republican Party County Chairwoman Kathy Walker told the Observer that she believed the Democrats in Edwards County had an “open door policy” for their meetings. “Why would they have it in a private home? We have our meetings at the women’s club.”

In any case, the Democrats didn’t launch any legal action against the sheriff’s office, and Elliott never apologized. Instead, the strange showdown became another in a long list of Elliott power plays that have plunged this isolated county into political turmoil. Her detractors say that since her election as sheriff in 2012, she’s waged an aggressive campaign to intimidate Democrats, voters and the Latino community.

The sheriff has arrested elected officials and gone to war with the superintendent. Her office has accused voters of electoral fraud with little evidence. And while embroiled in political combat, she’s been accused of bungling an investigation into a high profile murder case — one that’s haunted Rocksprings for 20 years. Elliott appears to be motivated in part by a growing far-right movement that exalts sheriffs as the last line of defense against a tyrannical federal government.

Elliott said she would answer questions via email, but then never responded.

Conflicts between the so-called patriot movement and the federal government have grown in recent years. High-profile incidents like the Bundy standoff in Nevada or the occupation of the Oregon wildlife refuge dominate headlines. But most anti-government activists don’t carry a badge and a gun or spend their days in local communities, ostensibly serving and protecting their neighbors.

Read the whole thing, it’s scary and amazing. A couple of days after that story was published, this happened:

A voting rights organization based in Washington, D.C., has called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate possible voter intimidation in Edwards County, following the publication of an Observer investigation into a West Texas sheriff.

In a letter to the head of the DOJ’s civil rights division, the Voting Rights Institute said it had “come to our attention that minority voters in Edwards County, Texas, are allegedly being intimidated by the local sheriff. We call upon the Department of Justice to conduct a federal investigation of this matter to ensure the protection of Latino voting rights.”

No word as yet from the Justice Department. I realize that calling in the feds to investigate a local autocrat who thinks the federal government is an evil oppressor bent on contaminating her precious bodily fluids makes for a potentially dangerous situation, but you can’t let this kind of petty bullying go unchecked. Sheriff Elliott is up for re-election in a county that went 72.6% to 26.2% for Romney over Obama in 2012, so unseating her will require more than just partisan outrage. The total number of voters in the county is less than a thousand, so at least there aren’t that many people to convince. I’ll put this one on my watch list for November. Good luck, y’all.