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January 22nd, 2021:

A brief summary of what the next two years will be like

What will Republicans do without Trump?

“The Republican Party is at a crossroads like it’s never been before, and it’s gonna have to decide who it is,” said Corbin Casteel, a Texas GOP operative who was Trump’s Texas state director during the 2016 primary.

No one seems to be under the illusion that Trump will fade quietly. Since losing the election to Joe Biden in November, Trump has launched baseless attacks on the integrity of the election as most prominent Texans in his party let his claims go unchallenged. Some of Trump’s most loyal allies in Texas expect he’ll be a force here for years.

“The party is really built around Donald Trump — the brand, the image, but most importantly, his policies and what he accomplished,” [Dan] Patrick said during a Fox News interview Thursday. “Whoever runs in 2024, if they walk away from Trump and his policies, I don’t think they can get through a primary.”

To Texas Democrats, Trump has been a highly galvanizing force who created new political opportunities for them, particularly in the suburbs. He carried the state by 9 percentage points in 2016 — the smallest margin for a GOP nominee in Texas in two decades — and then an even smaller margin last year. But his 6-point win here in November came after Democrats spent months getting their hopes up that Trump would lose the state altogether, and they also came up woefully short down-ballot, concluding the Trump era with decisively mixed feelings about his electoral impact at the state level.

More broadly, some Texas Democrats believe Trump is leaving a legacy as a symptom of the state’s current Republican politics, not a cause of it.

“Frankly I don’t think he changed the Republican Party in Texas,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, the state Democratic Party chair, adding that Trump has instead magnified the “extreme politics and tendencies” that Texas Republicans have long harbored. “The things that [Trump] stands for — the white nationalism, the anti-LGBT [sentiment], the just flat-out racism, just the absolute meanness — that’s what the Republican Party has been in Texas for quite some time.”

As for Texas Republicans’ embrace of Trump, Hinojosa added, they “are the people that Trump talks about when he says he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose their support.”

[…]

To be sure, it’s entirely possible Republicans unite in the next year the way political parties do when they’re in the minority — with an oppositional message to the opposing administration. But the GOP’s longer-term challenges could prove harder to resolve. In the final years of Trump, some in the party drifted from any unifying policy vision. At the 2020 Republican National Convention, the party opted not to create a new platform, saying it would instead “continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.”

November’s elections in Texas did little to settle the debate over which direction the party should go. Those who want to move on note that Trump won with the narrowest margin for a GOP presidential candidate this century, and swing-seat Republican congressional contenders largely outperformed him in their districts.

“Most every Republican that was successful, with the exception of a handful, outperformed Donald Trump by a significant margin,” Hurd said. “If you’re not growing, you are dying, and if we’re not expanding to those voters that are disaffected and don’t believe in the message that Democrats are providing, then we’re not going to be able to grow.”

On the other hand, Trump’s 6-point margin was bigger than expected, and he performed surprisingly well in Hispanic communities in South Texas. Former Texas GOP Chair James Dickey said Trump’s message was “particularly effective” in swaths of the state that aren’t typically looked at as political bellwethers.

“His biggest impact has been a return to populist roots and an expansion of the party in minority communities, which, again, is a return to its roots,” Dickey said.

My medium-lukewarm take based on 2018, 2020, and the Georgia runoffs is that Republicans do better with Trump on the ballot than not. Dems made the big gains in 2018 in part because Republican turnout, as high as it was in that off-year, wasn’t as good as it could have been. The GOP got some low-propensity voters to turn out in November – as did Dems – and now they have to try to get them to turn out again. Maybe they will! Maybe with Trump gone some number of former Republicans who voted Dem because they hated Trump will find their way back to the GOP. Or maybe those folks are now full-on Dems. The national atmosphere will be critical to how 2022 goes – the economy, the vaccination effort, the Senate trial of Trump, further fallout from the Capitol insurrection, and just overall whether people think the Dems have done too much, too little, or the right amount. Dems can only control what they do.

And that’s going to mean playing some defense.

Democrats are headed back to the White House, and Texas Republicans are gearing up to go back on offense.

For eight years under President Barack Obama, Texas was a conservative counterweight to a progressive administration, with its Republican leaders campaigning against liberal policies on immigration, the environment and health care and lobbing lawsuit after federal lawsuit challenging scores of Democratic initiatives. When Republicans could not block policies in Congress, they sometimes could in the courts.

Now, as Joe Biden enters the White House promising a slew of executive orders and proposed legislation, the notorious “Texas vs. the feds” lawsuits are expected to return in full force. And state leaders have begun to float policy proposals for this year’s legislative session in response to expected action — or inaction — from a White House run by Democrats.

[…]

Under Trump, Texas has often found itself aligned with the federal government in the courts. Most notably, the Trump administration lined up with a Texas-led coalition of red states seeking to end the Affordable Care Act. That case is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Once Biden enters the White House and his appointees lead everything from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Department of Homeland Security, Texas’ conservative leaders will return to a familiar posture: adversary, not ally, to those making national policy.

Paul Nolette, a professor at Marquette University who studies federalism, said he expects Texas to be “at the top of the heap” among Republican attorneys general challenging the new administration in court.

According to Nolette, the number of multi-state lawsuits against the federal government skyrocketed from 78 under eight years of Obama to 145 during just four years of Trump.

“Republican AGs will take a very aggressive multi-state approach,” Nolette predicted. “It’ll happen quickly.”

It should be noted that a lot of those lawsuits were not successful. I don’t know what the scoreboard looks like, and some of those suits are still active, so write that in pencil and not in Sharpie. It should also be noted that the goal of some of these lawsuits, like ending DACA and killing the Affordable Care Act, are not exactly in line with public opinion, so winning may not have the effect the GOP hopes it would have. And of course AG Ken Paxton is under federal indictment (no pardon, sorry), leading a hollowed-out office, and not in great electoral shape for 2022. There’s definitely a chance Texas is not at the front of this parade in 2022.

My point is simply this: There’s a lot of ways the next two years can go. I think the main factors look obvious right now, but nothing is ever exactly as we think it is. I think Democrats nationally have a good idea of what their goals are and how they will achieve them, but it all comes down to execution. Keep your eye on the ball.

Bail reform plaintiffs want Paxton booted from case

I for one am a fan of kicking out Ken Paxton in any context.

Best mugshot ever

In a strategic move that could speed up their case against Harris County, the plaintiffs challenging felony bail practices are hoping to kick two dozen players out of the game — 23 judges and Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, who represents most of them in the landmark suit.

These judges who dole out bail rulings on a daily basis to people accused of crime would become third parties. They would no longer go toe-to-toe with indigent defendants who sued in a civil rights case saying courts offer a vastly different outcomes to people arrested depending on how much money they have in their pocket.

The motion filed Wednesday asks Lee H. Rosenthal, the chief judge of the Southern District of Texas, to dismiss the felony judges as parties from the 2019 lawsuit. Should the judge grant it, the remaining defendants in the case would be the county and its sheriff. The majority in county government are in sync with bail reform and the sheriff’s office is headed by Ed Gonzalez, who has said that setting arbitrarily high bail rates doesn’t protect the public.

Paxton has been an impediment to progress, said Neal Manne, a pro bono lawyer from Susman Godfrey LLP, who is among the lead counsel behind twin bail challenges, to misdemeanor and felony bail.

“The county and the sheriff are actually operating in good faith and would like to figure out a solution to a terrible problem. The attorney general is not acting in good faith, he just wants to find ways to disrupt and disrupt and prevent any reform from happening.”

[…]

The idea of removing the judges from the case stems from a ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a case that took on Dallas County’s bail system. The appellate court determined that sovereign immunity protected the Dallas judges from being sued over their bail practices. The 5th Circuit ruling said the sheriff is the key party to sue to obtain relief for people who are being detained unconstitutionally due to unaffordable bail.

See here for the previous update. The theory, as espoused by Judge Chuck Silverman, who is not represented by Paxton and agrees with the plaintiffs, is that this would thin the herd in the courtroom, which in turn might make it easier to come to a settlement agreement. It might also put some of the judges who are currently being represented by the AG’s office on the spot, and I’m fine with that.

More bike riders, more bike fatalities

We should try to do something about this.

The COVID pandemic sparked a surge in bike sales and bike riding across the Houston region at a time when pedaling — and driving — area streets is deadlier than ever.

A sharp drop in driving could not stop road fatalities from reaching a record high based on data compiled by the Texas Department of Transportation.

That lack of safety was especially true in 2020 for bicyclists, who represent a fractional number of road users but 5 percent of those killed. Last year 31 men and three women died on area roads. The annual total of 34 exceeds that of 2019, which also was a record at 27 for the region in a single year.

Based on a preliminary analysis — reports can take weeks to enter the state’s crash database maintained by TxDOT — crashes involving bicycles are down 15 percent while deaths are up 26 percent from 2019.

Safety researchers and cycling advocates, however, were reluctant to draw too many conclusions from the early numbers or begin laying blame for the jump on any single cause. In fact, where crashes occurred and who died does not align with the noticeable increase in recreational cycling but, rather, the same factors present before the pandemic: a lack of safe space for bicycles, inadequate or absent lighting, and street design choices that enable drivers to speed.

“These aren’t accidents,” said Joe Cutrufo, executive director of BikeHouston, a local advocacy group. “Our streets were intentionally designed to accommodate one mode, and only one mode.”

[…]

Yet, despite bicycle use for recreation and commuting being higher in neighborhoods within and around Loop 610, that is not where fatalities are happening. Deaths of bicyclists within Loop 610 dropped from seven in 2019 to one last year.

Instead, it is suburban areas where crashes are happening in larger numbers, such as in Houston along U.S. 90 and major streets nearby within the Sam Houston Tollway and along FM 1960 near Bush Intercontinental Airport, which were not built with bicycles in mind.

The number of fatalities always has fallen off the farther from central Houston one gets, but this year some suburban counties logged increases, notably in Brazoria County where five bicyclists lost their lives in 2020. The county’s previous high was three in 2011.

[…]

Last year’s rise in bicyclist deaths mirrors the increase in overall road deaths despite the pandemic-induced economic slowdown that has resulted in fewer vehicles on freeways and streets.

In the 11-county Houston area, 710 roadway deaths were reported by police in 2020, with almost 60 percent being drivers or passengers in cars and trucks. Despite efforts at the state, regional and local levels to curtail crashes and a pandemic that at times cut vehicle use in half, wrecks continued to claim more lives, including a record 482 in Harris County and 263 in Houston.

The conclusion of researchers — who caution that 2020 information is preliminary — is that fewer miles of automotive travel is leading to fewer wrecks, but the resulting collisions and catastrophes occurring are more severe. As a result, few can say roads are any safer.

The connection between less traffic (due to the pandemic) and more traffic deaths was noted months ago, and seems to be the result of people driving faster on those less-congested streets. For obvious reasons, that will be especially deadly for bike riders. There’s a chart embedded in the story that shows 2020 was the highest traffic fatality year since at least 2011 in the Houston area, which I believe in this case is the 11-county H-GAC region. There’s a lot that can be done about this, and a lot that needs to be done, including more roads built for safety over speed, more bike lanes, more and better sidewalks, and just more drivers being aware of bikes and pedestrians. We can make a difference, but we have to want to.