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November 29th, 2020:

Weekend link dump for November 29

“Every single person I have encountered who was misinformed on COVID-19 referenced the president’s dishonesty on Fox News or social media. For Americans to believe a politician over experts is horrifying to us nurses on the front lines. This is insane. I have never seen anything like it.”

RIP, Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, where iconic movie scenes from Contact and Goldeneye were filmed.

“To paraphrase Janney, Trump will provide a sense of relief to white Americans who felt dishonored by his defeat.”

“In a landmark series of calculations, physicists have proved that black holes can shed information, which seems impossible by definition.”

“Why COVID-19 vaccines seem to work better than expected”.

“I’m not violating any pledge of journalistic confidentially in reporting this: 21 Republican Sens–in convos w/ colleagues, staff members, lobbyists, W. House aides–have repeatedly expressed extreme contempt for Trump & his fitness to be POTUS.” On that list: John Cornyn, not that you’d ever see any evidence of it in real life. Not on that list: Ted Cruz, because Trump has always been so complimentary of his family.

That’s Emmy award-winning Governor Andrew Cuomo to you, pal.

“Now that he’s lost his office to President-elect Joe Biden, Trump is facing the prospect of finally having to deal with both Carroll’s claim and a similar defamation lawsuit filed in New York by former Apprentice contestant Summer Zervos. Legal experts say that both women’s cases could proceed quickly once Trump returns to civilian life. And that means the soon-to-be-former president could imminently face the question of either settling their claims or going to trial over the truth of their allegations.”

“Conservative operatives and a super PAC with ties to infamous GOP dirty trickster Roger Stone are calling for Trump supporters to punish Republicans by sitting out Georgia’s crucial Senate runoffs or writing in Trump’s name instead. And though their efforts remains on the party’s fringes, the trajectory of the movement has Republicans fearful that it could cost the GOP control of the Senate.”

RIP, David Dinkins, first Black mayor of New York City.

RIP, Pat Quinn, co-founder of the ALS Ice Bucket challenge.

RIP, David Maas, one half of the magic act Quick Change.

“As I’ve said before, this is not the worst or most urgent problem created by ingratitude. The harm that it does to the ungrateful is not as much of a priority as the harm it causes them to do to others. But it may be easier to get those trapped in the bondage of ingratitude to see the harm they’re doing to themselves than it will be, at first, to get them to see the harm they are doing to others. Like Ebenezer Scrooge or Zacchaeus, they’re perhaps more likely to recognize their need for repentance and the obligations of gratitude when the focus is on the consequences for them.”

“In a civic democracy willfully and knowingly spreading lies to overturn or undermine confidence in a free and fair election is the equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded theater. It amounts to a crime against the people and the republic. Generic lying has strong first amendment protections. But bringing those lies into court does not. There are ample grounds for seeking legal sanctions against the lawyers who have polluted the courts with these frivolous claims with the clear intent of undermining the republic itself.”

RIP, Bruce Boynton, civil rights pioneer who inspired the Freedom Rides on 1961.

RIP, Diego Maradona, Argentine soccer legend.

“Utah helicopter crew discovers mysterious metal monolith deep in the desert”. Because 2020, man. Oh, and now it’s gone, which is not suspicious at all.

RIP, Dave Prowse, actor best known for playing Darth Vader.

So now we start to prep for redistricting

It’s gonna make for a long session, or more likely sessions.

Wielding the map-drawing power will not be entirely painless for Republicans, who have seen their grip on dozens of state and federal districts erode since the last round of redistricting. Though Democrats failed to flip any of their targeted congressional seats in 2020 and fared about as poorly in state House contests, their single-digit defeats in once ruby red districts point to Democrats’ growing advantages in urban and suburban counties, even as Republicans retain an overwhelming advantage in rural Texas.

Republicans, then, will have to decide how aggressive they want to be in redrawing political boundaries to their benefit, balancing the need to fortify their numbers in battleground districts with the opportunity to flip back some of the districts they lost in 2018, when Democrats picked up 12 seats.

“I see this redistricting opportunity for Republicans as more of a defensive play than an offensive play,” said Texas Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak. “This is one of the tough things when you’re engaging in redistricting if you’re the party in power, because you can be sort of allured by the short-term potential to win an extra seat or two. But you can take two steps forward to eventually take three steps back if you’re not thinking about demographic changes over a 10-year period.”

For now, the looming redistricting fight is far from the minds of most state lawmakers. Though the U.S. Census Bureau is supposed to deliver updated population data to states by April 1 next year, the agency suspended field operations for the 2020 Census due to the COVID-19 pandemic and wrapped up the count in October, well after the original July 31 deadline. Bureau officials also sought to push back the deadline for sending data to the states until July 2021, prompting speculation that Texas may not get the census numbers until after the Legislature gavels out in late May.

“If the data is not delivered during the regular session, it creates a whole set of cascading problems that impact the drawing of lines, even down to the county and municipal levels, because everyone is going to be put on an even greater time crunch,” said Eric Opiela, an attorney and former executive director of the Texas Republican Party who has worked on prior redistricting efforts.

During normal times, officials might already be using population data from the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey (ACS) to strategize or even draw up preliminary maps. But the pandemic has forced census workers to adopt unconventional survey tactics and generated unprecedented population shifts due to the rise in remote working, factors that make any pre-2020 population data highly unreliable, Opiela said.

“Those (ACS) projections can be used to allow you to do things like work through scenarios before the official data comes, and it’s actually fairly accurate,” Opiela said. “I don’t know that that’s going to be the case this time. I think it’s going to be very important to wait until the official data is received to draw any conclusions as to where Texans live.”

It’s not just the uncertain timeline. Even if the Census data arrived on time, COVID-19 would likely hamper redistricting efforts by forcing lawmakers to prioritize filling the state’s pandemic-inflicted budget gap and perhaps providing economic and medical relief to COVID-19 victims.

“The challenge with redistricting is it’s such a naturally partisan issue that it’s really hard to sort of box half the day and then be ballet dancers the other half of the day,” Mackowiak said. “It’s hard to be bipartisan on other issues but then super, super partisan during redistricting. So, having a special session just related to redistricting after the major issues are taken care of seems to me to be the smartest pathway.”

See here for the most recent news on the Census situation. I think it’s very likely that we don’t get the data in time for the regular session, in which case redistricting will be done in a special session later in the year. Depending on how late that is, and on how long it takes to hammer out maps, and whether any initial court challenges result in temporary restraining orders, we could see the 2022 primaries get pushed back. The filing period begins in mid-November, after all, so there’s a non-zero chance of it being affected by how this plays out.

It’s worth remembering that if the Dems had managed to win the State House, they still would have had limited influence over redistricting. As the story correctly notes, the Legislative Redistricting Board, a five-member panel that would have had only one Democrat (the House Speaker, in this hypothetical), would draw the State House, State Senate, and SBOE maps if the House and Senate had been unable to agree on them. The Congressional maps would go to a federal court, however, and that’s where the Dems might have had some influence. If Republicans didn’t want to take the chance of putting map-drawing power in a third party like that, they might have been open to some compromises on the other maps. We’ll never know now, but that was the basic idea.

As it is, how this goes with Republicans once again in full control will come down to how they answer a few key questions. (For the purposes of this post, I’m focusing on the State House. The issue are mostly similar for Congress and the State Senate, but my examples will come from House elections.) Will they be constrained by established rules like the county line rule, which puts only whole House seats in sufficiently large counties (this is why all Harris County State House seats are entirely within Harris County), or do they change that? How constrained do they feel by the Voting Rights Act, and by other established redistricting precedents – in other words, do they bet big on the courts overturning past rulings so that they can more or less do whatever they want, or do they pull it in so as not to risk losing in court?

Most of all, what do they consider a “safe” seat to be? Look at it this way: In 2012, Republicans won 16 of the 95 seats they took with less than 60% of the vote. Of those, only five were decided by fewer than ten points:

HD43 – Won in 2010 by then-Democrat JM Lozano, who subsequently switched parties.
HD105 – Barely won by the GOP in 2008, by less than 20 votes.
HD107 – Won by a Dem in 2008, it became the first Republican-held seat to flip in this decade, won by Victoria Neave in 2016.
HD114 – Nothing special, it was won by eight points in 2012.
HD134 – The perennial swing district.

Note that four of those five are now Democratic. Other “less than 60%” seats from 2012 now held by Dems include HDs 45, 47, 65, 102, 115, and 136. (*) The point is, that looks like an extremely durable majority, with enough 60%+ seats on their own to ensure a mostly Republican House. And indeed it was for the first three elections of the decade. There will be books written about why all of a sudden it became precarious, but you’d be hard pressed to do a better job than the Republicans did in 2011.

But as noted, things look different now. In 2020, Republicans won 26 of the 87 seats they took with less than 60% of the vote. Of those, seventeen were won by less than ten points:

HD26, HD54, HD64, HD66, HD67, HD92, HD93, HD94, HD96, HD97, HD108, HD112, HD121, HD126, HD132, HD138

We can talk all we want about how things might have gone differently in 2020, but the fact remains that it wouldn’t have taken much to change many of those outcomes. How many Republican incumbents will insist on a 55%+ district for themselves? Whatever assumptions you make about the 2020 electorate and what it means for the future, that’s going to be a tall order in some parts of the state.

This more than anything will drive their decision-making, and may well be the single biggest source of friction on their side. Who is willing to accept a 51% Republican district, and who will have to take one for the team? In 2011, Republicans were coming off an election that they had won by more than 20 points statewide. This year they won at the Presidential level by less than six points, and at the Senate level by less than ten. They have a smaller piece of the pie to cut up. They have full control over how they do it, but the pie isn’t as big as it used to be. What are they going to do about that?

(*) In 2012, Cindy Burkett had no Democratic opponent in HD113, and Gary Elkins was re-elected in HD135 with 60.36% of the vote. Both of those districts are now held by Democrats. Always in motion, the future is.

More on police oversight boards

Ours in Houston isn’t very good. Some other cities do it better. We can learn from them.

Houston’s police oversight board is the weakest among Texas’ five largest cities and suffers from “a complete lack of transparency and public reporting,” a recent study from Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research concludes.

The report, released last week, analyzed police oversight institutions in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth, concluding that the agencies in each city need more resources, and fewer legislative hurdles, while its members need more experience and training.

The Independent Police Oversight Board in Houston “has very limited powers to conduct its own investigations, instead being handed completed internal affairs investigations without the ability to independently collect further evidence on the event,” reads the report, co-authored by Kinder Institute director Bill Fulton, a member of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s recent police reform task force.

The group detailed its recommendations in a 153-page report released in late September, about three months after Turner announced his 45 appointees to the board. The group recommended that city officials bolster the police oversight board with paid staffing and facilities outside the police department and by changing policy to allow the board to report some of its findings to the community, which it is currently barred from doing.

Turner has signaled he intends to adopt at least some of those recommendations, saying in early September he is “99.999 percent certain there will be some adjustments” to the police oversight board. The mayor later said he’s “overwhelmingly supportive of most of the ideas” in the task force’s report, though he said some could be difficult to fund or would require state legislative action.

The task force’s recommendations align with those presented in the Kinder report, which recommends the board be staffed with “people with legal knowledge, police expertise and research skills.” Austin has by far the most paid staff members on its oversight group among Texas’ five largest cities, the report found.

“(M)ost agencies in the state’s big cities have fewer than five employees to oversee forces of thousands of officers,” according to the report. “Houston’s IPOB has no staff or resources.”

See here for more on Mayor Turner and the task force recommendations. For more on the Kinder report, which you can find here, I’ll refer you to this Grits for Breakfast post, which goes into more detail. At this point, we have all the information we need to act. It’s time to act. I’m hopeful we’ll get some at the city level in the upcoming weeks, but as Mayor Turner says, some of this needs to happen at the state level. And there, I fear, we’re more likely to run into obstacles. For instance:

That bill is authored by Rep. Matt Krause, one of the vulnerable Republicans we were unfortunately not able to knock off this election. The problem goes a lot deeper than one State Rep, though. Cities are not going to be able to do what their voters want them to do if the Republican legislature and Greg Abbott have anything to say about it.

There sure were a lot of named storms this year

Thirty of them, in fact.

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season had a record 30 named storms. Twelve made landfall in the continental U.S., including five in Louisiana.

Hurricane season ends Nov. 30 (that’s next week, so fingers crossed there isn’t a Thanksgiving surprise), but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its end-of-season report on Tuesday.

“The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season ramped up quickly and broke records across the board,” Neil Jacobs, acting NOAA administrator, said in a news release.

There were a record nine named storms from May through July. Then 10 named storms formed in September; the most for any month on record.

On Sept. 18, Tropical Storm Wilfred exhausted the pre-selected 21 names for this Atlantic hurricane season. For only the second time in history, the Greek alphabet was required to name subsequent storms.

Hurricane Laura was the strongest storm to make landfall in the U.S., coming ashore near Cameron, La., on Aug. 27 as a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph.

Nicaragua was hit with two Category 4 storms: Hurricane Eta on Nov. 3 with maximum sustained winds of 140 mph and Hurricane Iota on Nov. 16 with maximum sustained winds near 155 mph.

A “normal” year has 12 named storms. We’re in a period of warmer sea surface temperatures, and that’s a phase that can last a couple of decades. So it’s probably not going to get much better any time soon, and that’s before we bring up that pesky climate change thing. And the US got off relatively easy while places like Nicaragua got slammed. Since Donald Trump couldn’t find Nicaragua on a map if you drew him an arrow pointing to it with a red Sharpie, let’s hope that the Biden administration will offer some support and relief. And also that we’ll get started on building that Ike Dike. Here’s a timeline if you want to relive the 2020 storm season.