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July 1st, 2021:

Chron story on Odus Evbagharu

Some good stuff here.

Odus Evbagharu

When Odus Evbagharu, a 28-year-old legislative staffer and campaign organizer, took the reins of the Harris County Democratic Party Sunday evening, he inherited a party that stands on some of its firmest footing in years, despite several defeats in 2020 that disappointed local Democrats.

Evbagharu succeeds former chair Lillie Schechter, who won the position in March 2017, months after Democrats had swept every countywide race and delivered Harris County to Hillary Clinton by 12 points. It was a massive swing from the 2014 midterms, when it was Republicans who swept the countywide slate, but also one that leaned heavily on deep-pocketed political donors and grass-roots activity by groups such as the Texas Organizing Project, amid lackluster fundraising from the party itself.

Now, Evbagharu is taking over a party that has taken in more than $2.2 million since the start of 2018 — double the amount raised during the last comparable three-year period from 2014 to 2016 — and overseen countywide sweeps in 2018 and 2020, too. Democrats also gained control of Harris County Commissioners Court under Schechter.

“We have a robust thing going down here,” Evbagharu said Monday. “Lillie did a good job of building a great foundation. Now it’s our job to build on top of it.”

Harris County Democrats, however, still are smarting from a number of 2020 losses in local elections they had cast as battleground races, including several contests for the Legislature and Congress, along with an open commissioners court seat race. Evbagharu attributed the Democrats’ underperformance in part to their reluctance to campaign in person during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think what went awry was, we didn’t block walk,” Evbagharu said. “And I don’t want to oversimplify it, I don’t want to say there weren’t other factors. We’ve got to do better with our messaging, and our data’s got to be better as a party. I’m not afraid to say that out loud — polling accuracy, targeting, who we talk to and not just making assumptions.”

We talked about some of this stuff (and some of the stuff later in the story that I’ll get to in a minute) when I interviewed Odus a couple of weeks ago. I trust him to have a clear view of the data and to have a plan to shore up weaknesses and build on strengths. To whatever extent that the lack of Democratic blockwalking hurt last year – everyone agrees it did, it’s putting a number on it that’s hard – that will not be an issue in 2022. There will be new challenges, and who knows what the Trump Factor will be, and we will just have to try to figure them out and make a plan.

Evbagharu said the party’s strong position, relative to the one inherited by Schechter, means he can be more proactive in sharing resources and information with local Democratic parties in surrounding counties, some of which have made electoral gains in recent elections. He said he also hopes to attract a state or national Democratic Party convention to Harris County, a goal that could become easier if more of the Houston region becomes bluer.

“It’s great that Harris County’s always at the forefront, but we need Montgomery County, we need to at least cut margins there,” Evbagharu said. “We need Galveston County, we need Brazoria, we need Waller, we need Fort Bend, which is turning blue if not already blue. We need southeast Texas to be strong.”

Evbagharu said he also wants the party to be more aggressive in lobbying elected officials — including Democrats — on policy and issues, a role that traditionally has been left to activists and advocacy groups instead of the formal party apparatus. During the most recent legislative session, lawmakers passed “the greatest hits of the red meat Tea Party Republican whatever,” he said, arguing that the local Democratic Party has a stronger role to play.

“We have to make it a habit to engage our electeds in D.C., in Austin, here in Houston at county Commissioners Court, City Hall and school boards,” Evbagharu said. “…We have to do a better job of getting in there and fighting.”

Renée Cross, senior director of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston, said she was not aware of the Harris County Democratic Party ever making a concerted effort to share resources with other local parties. And the last time the party took a more aggressive on policy came under Sue Schechter, Lillie Schechter’s mother, who chaired the party in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Until now, Democrats were not in much of a position to do that, Cross said.

“If you’re the party that’s trying to gain power, all your emphasis is on getting those folks elected,” Cross said. “You just don’t have the luxury of lobbying, necessarily, if your party’s out of power.”

Still, county Democrats’ hold on power is far from ironclad as the 2022 elections approach, Cross said. For one, they will have mobilize enthusiasm without former president Donald Trump in office, and Democrats’ lineup of statewide candidates remains uncertain.

“There’s a big target sitting in the White House now, which we haven’t had in four years. Republicans are certainly going to go after Preisident Biden and VP Harris, so Odus is going to have to combat that continually,” Cross said. “…And there’s no doubt that part of the success in Harris County in 2018 was part of Beto (O’Rourke) being at the top of the ticket. It was the star power of Beto that really helped turn out the vote. And I think without that, Democrats have a really tough road ahead.”

We talked about some of this stuff too. I have been an advocate for better regional coordination – it’s not just in our interest from a statewide perspective, we will also have various offices (Congress, SBOE, State Senate, appellate courts) that cross county lines and need a bigger-than-Harris response. There may be a risk of overextending ourselves, but I can’t see any good reason to not at least be talking to our neighbors.

I respectfully disagree with Professor Cross – Beto surely gets some credit for 2018, but you know who was coordinating the HCDP combined campaign that year? Odus Evbagharu, that’s who. Look, Dems have proven their ability to win in high-turnout Presidential years since 2008. We won in a high-turnout off year in 2018, and I concede that until we win again in an off year there’s room to be skeptical. I would just point out a couple of things in rebuttal. One is that Dems have built a big edge in voter registration over the years, and we’re still very good at doing that work. Two, the shift in the Trump years of college-educated Anglo voters into the Democratic column has been profound – here again I will say that Mitt Romney got 60% of the vote in HD134 in 2012, while Joe Biden got and equivalent amount in 2020. National data shows no sign of this reversing or even slowing down, and what’s more these are very reliable voters. When I say that the climate is very different now, these things are a part of that.

We don’t know what the national climate will be like, and we don’t know what Joe Biden’s approval numbers will be. If they’re in the tank, then hell yeah we have problems. Dems either have to ensure that they don’t have a turnout problem in 2022, or they have to show they can still win in Harris County in a lower turnout environment. Bear in mind, there are risks for the Republicans too. They own any future blackouts due to weather, that’s for sure. Donald Trump is not going to sit by quietly, Ken Paxton could get arrested by the FBI, the reconstituted January 6 commission will be producing reports into next year – there’s lots of things that can go wrong for the GOP as well. I am pretty reasonably optimistic about 2022, at least from a Harris County perspective. Ask me again in a year and we’ll see if that has held up.

James White to challenge Sid Miller

Should be interesting.

State Rep. James White, R-Hillister, announced Wednesday that he is running for agriculture commissioner, marking the first major primary opponent for incumbent Sid Miller.

“The combination of my proven conservative record, experience on agriculture issues, and commitment to integrity and ethics makes me the right candidate to steer this crucial agency back in the right direction,” White said in a news release.

The announcement made official a move White had been teasing since he announced earlier this month that he would not seek reelection to the Texas House after six terms in office. The only Black Republican in the Legislature, White chairs the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. He previously served on the Agriculture and Livestock Committee.

Miller considered running for governor in 2022, challenging fellow Republican Greg Abbott, but announced earlier this month that he would instead run for reelection as agriculture commissioner. Miller won a second term in 2018 after facing two primary challengers and prevailing with 56% of the vote.

Miller did not immediately respond to a request for comment on White’s candidacy.

In his announcement, White offered thinly veiled contrasts with Miller over his personal controversies over the years, which include spreading fake news on Facebook and using taxpayer dollars for two trips involving personal activities, including getting a medical injection in Oklahoma called the “Jesus Shot.” The Texas Rangers investigated the trips, and Travis County prosecutors eventually opted against bringing criminal charges.

Former President Donald Trump could play a role in the race. Miller is an enthusiastic ally of Trump, and an news release announcing White’s campaign cast him as an “early supporter of … Trump, serving as an advisory board member for Black Voices for Trump.”

For his part, White has received support from House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, and other colleagues in the House, who have urged him to run for agriculture commissioner.

See here and here for the background. This will be another test of the idea that a “normal” conservative candidate can oust a high-profile grievance-mongering performance artist with a deeply problematic record. The three-candidate AG race is the other example of this. White’s challenge is a little different, for two reasons. One is that James White starts out with low name recognition, while Sid Miller is pretty well known (for bad reasons, to be sure, but it still counts). Compare that to the Ken Paxton challengers – both P Bush and Eva Guzman have won statewide more than once, and while neither is universally known they both start out at a much higher level. This is a big hurdle for White to overcome. It’s certainly possible for a State Rep to win a statewide primary – Sid Miller himself is an example of that – but taking out an incumbent is a new frontier. Keep an eye on the fundraising – if White posts a big report in January, that might tell us something.

On the other hand, Ken Paxton can point to a lot more accomplishments that a Republican primary voter will like than Sid Miller can. He certainly lost some big cases in court, but he has plenty of wins, and has led many multi-state coalitions against the federal government and now against Google. I have no idea what actual things Sid Miller has done as Ag Commissioner, other than the barbecue scale situation, which I kind of thought was okay but which ruffled some feathers. To be fair, what an Ag Commissioner does is usually not of great interest to us urbanites, but I follow the news pretty closely and I can’t think of anything offhand. He’s got the evil clown bit down pat, and that may well be enough for him. White can and surely will talk policy and will be able to credibly say that Miller hasn’t done much of anything, but it’s not clear to me that will matter.

Anyway. I expect at this time that both Ken Paxton and Sid Miller will survive their challenges. I may revise that opinion later, and it’s clear that some people see an opportunity, but I’m betting on the house until I see a reason to do otherwise.

White said in the news release that Texas “needs competent, statewide leaders.”

Let’s try again to fix that flood bond deficit

Hope this works.

Harris County on Tuesday [unveiled] a new plan to address a funding gap for its flood bond program, which will rely more heavily on diverted toll road revenue instead of federal aid that may never arrive.

The goal is to give the county greater control over its own flood control future instead of waiting on unreliable state and federal partners. To that end, the Commissioners Court also is expected to approve a new, permanent fund for flood control purposes and give priority to the most vulnerable areas to receive aid from it.

The plan still leaves approved projects $950 million short, however, raising the possibility that a new bond or flood control tax increases may be needed in the future to pay for all planned projects, according to budget office documents. Additional money would not be needed for about five years, according to the budget office.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey said the fund, called the Flood Resilience Trust, is a good idea because it allows the county to stockpile money for projects in advance.

“It allows the county to, in a very effective way, set aside money every year, and that money will be there when they make any federal or state applications,” Ramsey said. “With a trust, we can move forward with a project while anticipating those (matching) dollars will come in.”

[…]

Because the Harris County Flood Control District purposefully underfunded some bond projects in anticipation of receiving federal aid, the snub resulted in lopsided spending across the county’s 23 watersheds. In March, the county announced that some of the watersheds with the wealthiest communities, such as White Oak and Buffalo bayous, had their projects close to fully funded.

Watersheds with some of the county’s poorest neighborhoods, such as Halls and Greens bayous, had less than half the necessary dollars. That angered the commissioners who represent those areas, Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia, because the court agreed in proposing the bond three summers ago that funds would be spent equitably.

The new plan aims to fix that. First, it would direct Harris County Toll Road Authority revenue — a lump sum of $230 million plus $40 million annually — to a new Flood Resilience Trust. This account would be used to plug funding holes in projects where federal aid failed to arrive.

Projects would be eligible based on their scores on the county’s prioritization framework, which considers factors such as how many structures would benefit from a project, how frequently a target area has flooded and the socioeconomic makeup of the residents there. This “worst first” framework, approved in 2019, initially dictated only the order in which projects were started.

The two Republican commissioners on the court, Jack Cagle and Steve Radack, voted against the equity language; Cagle said he saw no connection between social factors such as education or poverty and flood risk.

The county budget office estimates that if no other federal or state aid comes, the Flood Resilience Trust will be able to make up bond project shortfalls until about 2026. After that, the commissioners may need to issue a new bond to cover the remaining costs.

See here for the background. This was a preview story, published before the Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday. I presume this was passed, but the meeting ran late, and so as of Wednesday afternoon there wasn’t an updated version yet. I think this is a reasonable plan, and if it can buy them five years (and hopefully some real progress in getting projects done) before having to do another bond, then that’s a good outcome and the odds of having that bond passed will improve. It also allows for some time to un-screw the federal fund distribution, which would make all of this a lot simpler. For now, this will do.

Texas blog roundup for the week of June 28

The Texas Progressive Alliance hopes we are hearing the last breaths of the filibuster as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

Anti-gay Waco JP’s lawsuit tossed

Here’s a bit of good news.

A Travis County judge has thrown out McLennan County Justice of the Peace Dianne Hensley’s lawsuit against the state panel that sanctioned her in 2019 for refusing to perform same-sex weddings.

Judge Jan Soifer of Austin’s 459th State District Court listed a variety of reasons for dismissing the lawsuit. She ruled that the State Commission on Judicial Conduct has sovereign and statutory immunity from the claims and that Hensley failed to exhaust other legal remedies before filing her lawsuit.

[…]

Hensley, a justice of the peace for six years, officiates weddings between men and women but refuses to perform weddings for same-sex couples, saying it goes against her “Bible-believing” Christian conscience. Her lawsuit claims the agency violated state law by punishing her for actions she took in accordance with her religious beliefs.

In issuing its sanction against Hensley — a public warning — the commission said Hensley has refused to perform same-sex weddings since August 2016, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision a year earlier that established constitutional rights to same-sex marriage.

The commission said Hensley is violating the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct by “casting doubt on her capacity to act impartially to persons appearing before her as a judge due to the person’s sexual orientation.”

Hensley, who has said she is entitled to a “religious exemption,” filed her claims under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act under the backing of the First Liberty Institute, a high-profile religious liberty law firm based in Plano.

Hensley has said that she, along with most all of the county’s JPs, stopped performing any weddings on legal advice from the county so as not to appear that those who chose not to perform same-sex weddings were discriminating against same-sex couples.

See here, here, and here for the background. Hensley had sought damages of $10,000 to make up for the money she was unable to make when she was not performing weddings because of her bigoted refusal to do them for same sex couples. Instead, she was ordered to pay court costs, which seems fitting to me.

Chron reporter Taylor Goldenstein, who wrote their story when Hensley filed her suit, has some more detail on this.

I don’t think I was aware of the federal lawsuit or its current status – I did suggest when Hensley sued that this might wind up in federal court – so that’s good to know. I’m certain she will appeal, so this isn’t over, but I suspect the Commission’s immunity from lawsuits will be hard for her to overcome. For now, let’s celebrate a bigot being told “No”.