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September 26th, 2021:

Weekend link dump for September 26

“Even before the thefts started, the city’s 65,000 delivery workers had tolerated so much: the fluctuating pay, the lengthening routes, the relentless time pressure enforced by mercurial software, the deadly carelessness of drivers, the pouring rain and brutal heat, and the indignity of pissing behind a dumpster because the restaurant that depends on you refuses to let you use its restroom. And every day there were the trivially small items people ordered and the paltry tips they gave — all while calling you a hero and avoiding eye contact.”

“Our analysis of HHS and CDC data indicates there were 32,000 preventable COVID-19 hospitalizations in June, 68,000 preventable COVID-19 hospitalizations in July, and another 187,000 preventable COVID-19 hospitalizations among unvaccinated adults in the U.S. in August, for a total of 287,000 across the three months. We explain more on how we arrived at these numbers below. If each of these preventable hospitalizations cost roughly $20,000, on average, that would mean these largely avoidable hospitalizations have already cost billions of dollars since the beginning of June.”

“Anyone who’d rather have COVID-19 than get vaccinated is taking two gambles: that immunity will stick around, and that symptoms won’t.”

RIP, Larry Tesler, the computer scientist who invented copy and paste.

“The Covid-driven surge in car deaths shouldn’t obscure what was already a disquieting fact before the pandemic: American automotive deaths — both of pedestrians and of people in cars — are a public health emergency.”

“The dead hand of the Trump administration already controls much of the U.S. government through the federal judiciary. Now it is reaching into other nations, too.”

“The GOP intransigence is fiercely motivating Democrats to vote even in off-year and special elections, even as Republicans and their conservative infotainment allies are functionally killing and incapacitating literally thousands of their own voters almost every day, including and especially the ones so politically engaged and devoted to the cause that they’re willing to risk death rather than wear a mask or get a shot.”

RIP, Sarah Dash, R&B singer and actress, co-founder of Patti LaBelle & The Bluebelles and LaBelle.

“Activision Blizzard now faces a federal investigation into how the company has handled employee allegations of workplace discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual misconduct. The company’s workplace environment has faced public scrutiny since California authorities filed suit to prosecute similar claims back in July.”

“The goal on January 6 was to have Mike Pence declare Trump the winner of the election by simply leaving out seven states. And if anyone objected to that tactic, there was a backup plan for Pence to hand Trump the election through a second route.” Honestly, a whole lot of people should be facing jail time for this.

“Amazon is actively lobbying the United States government to federally legalize cannabis“.

“Cassandra Peterson — best known to the world as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark — released her new memoir Yours Cruelly, Elvira today and, in the process, came out by revealing her 19-year relationship with another woman, Teresa “T” Wierson.”

RIP, Willie Garson, actor best known for Sex and the City and White Collar.

RIP, Peter Palmer, stage and screen actor who originated the role of L’il Abner on Broadway. Mark Evanier has a nice remembrance of him.

“Why are more men dying from COVID? It’s a complicated story of nature vs. nurture, researchers say.”

“Fact: The unvaccinated phenomenon in America represents the story of Covid today. But the press tip-toes around it, pretending it’s normal for millions of Americans to risk death by refusing to take a vaccine that’s been administered billions of times worldwide.”

RIP, Melvin Van Peebles, groundbreaking filmmaker, actor, writer, and composer.

“As opposition to vaccines becomes a more partisan issue, however, progressives who are vaccine-hesitant will face a decision. Do they remain on the left, even as the politics around the conspiracy theories they embrace lead them out of their ideological comfort zones? Or do they dispense with progressivism in favor of a view of the world that holds that public health is subordinate to personal choice?”

“The pandemic has been a vast natural experiment to determine whether there are people who would literally rather die than admit they were wrong about politics. I would have speculated ahead of time that such people exist, and in significant numbers. But now we know for sure.”

What about Lizzie?

Rep. Lizzie Fletcher is waiting to see what happens to her district with redistricting, just like the rest of us.

Rep. Lizzie Fletcher

Lizzie Pannill Fletcher’s political career became something of a trophy to Washington Democrats in 2018 after she won the Houston-based 7th Congressional District — long a bastion of Texas Republican leadership.

The seat was once held by the late President George H. W. Bush, and one of Fletcher’s most prominent constituents is U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. The 7th was designed to be a safe Republican stronghold, but the 46-year-old former trial attorney snatched it away three years ago. And while many of her classmates from the 2018 Democratic wave lost reelection in 2020, she held on against a formidable Republican opponent.

Any day now, she’ll find out how intent Texas Republicans are on taking the seat back.

The Texas Legislature is poised to unveil its proposed maps for new Texas Congressional districts, and some expect they’ll redraw the 7th in a way that dooms Fletcher’s chances of winning there again.

Fletcher is well aware she is in political purgatory.

“I’ve always known that this is just part of the process and … there’s so much happening here, that perhaps it’s good that it’s not my focus,” she said in an interview. “It’s on my radar that my job is to represent my constituents and certainly hearing what I’ve heard, knowing what I know, I do feel a responsibility to try to protect the district and to protect them.”

[…]

What that district will look like after the Legislature is done drawing new maps is now one of the most debated questions in Texas politics, and the merciful scenarios for Fletcher are limited.

It’s an open secret that House GOP leadership wants to elevate her 2020 rival, retired veteran Wesley Hunt. And after Republicans held onto the Legislature last year, speculation began about how to draw maps in a way that would make it impossible for her, and U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, a Dallas Democrat also elected in 2018, to win reelection.

[…]

But eight state and national Republican operatives with direct ties to the Texas delegation warned in interviews that an aggressive effort to unseat Fletcher could endanger the Republican incumbents who surround her district: U.S. Reps. Michael McCaul of Austin, Dan Crenshaw of Houston and Troy Nehls of Richmond.

Historically, the Legislature listens to the sitting Congressional Republicans when they redraw maps, and McCaul, as a senior Republican, is serving as a point person between the state lawmakers and his GOP colleagues.

While early details of the new districts remain closely held, some Republican sources said they sense survival instincts are setting in among the federal Republicans. Meaning, few are excited about the notion of pulling conservative voters from nearby Republican incumbents’ districts to take out Fletcher.

Instead, the map drawers could decide to leave Fletcher alone, and siphon Republicans from her district to bolster the long term reelection chances of Republicans in neighboring districts.

But that might hurt Fletcher in a different way: Her district could end up including many new Democratic voters unfamiliar with her, leaving her vulnerable to a primary challenge from an established Houston Democrat.

Wesley Hunt is running for something, he just hasn’t specified what yet. Moving is always an option, for when the Republicans draw the new seats. As for Rep. Fletcher, we’ve discussed the scenarios a few times here. The Republican decline in Harris and Fort Bend counties is a challenge for them. I’m sure they can draw something that would favor a Republican over Fletcher, but at what risk to their incumbents in close districts? For what it’s worth, Dave Wasserman is predicting that Reps. Fletcher and Allred get packed and not cracked, which is to say their districts become Democratic vote sinks to protect the Republicans around them. That may make her more vulnerable to a primary challenge, but she’s pretty well-regarded and she has lots of cash on hand, two things that would help her in that scenario.

And if she does wind up on the outs, one way or another?

“I don’t know that I’ve thought through my process,” she said, describing how she will sort out her political future. “But I’m generally most concerned about making sure that my constituents get the representation they deserve.”

“At this point, all options are on the table,” she said.

When asked if that included retirement, she laughed: “I’m too young to retire, right?”

But there is another option.

The 2018 wave was consequential in Texas partly because it gave Democrats a farm team for the first time in decades. Fletcher could run for a different office.

“If I think I have something to offer, or if I think I can contribute … I have to kick the tires for a long time before I feel confident that I can do a job here, but I think I’ve done a good job here,” she said.

Lord knows, we can always use good statewide candidates. This is not how I would prefer to find them, but it’s a possible path. We’ll see where we go.

The Housing and Community Development mess

A review of headlines from last week, which I did not have the brain space to do anything with:

Turner fires Houston housing director who accused him of ‘charade’ bid process to benefit developer

Turner names interim housing director in wake of corruption claims by former department head

Turner orders legal review of housing deal at center of ‘charade’ claims by fired housing director

Editorial: Tell the truth, Mayor Turner. Why the ‘charade’ over wasteful housing contract?

I still don’t quite have the brain capacity to make sense of all this. None of it looks good for Mayor Turner, but how things end don’t always reflect how they began. These would be terrible headlines not just for the Mayor but for everyone on City Council if we had elections this year, but we don’t. There may be some echoes of this when the 2023 campaigns roll around, but my guess is that unless there’s something epic inside all of this we will have moved onto many other things by then. At heart, that’s one of the reasons I voted against the proposal back in 2015 to change from two year terms and a limit of three for local elected officials to four year terms with a limit of two. I know a lot of Council members hated having to run every two years, but I believed then and still believe now that there’s value to it. Anyway, here we are. We’ll see how many people remember any of this a month from now, let alone in two years.

The fight over widening I-35

Hold tough, Austin. We feel your pain here.

In May 2019, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) unveiled a $7.5 billion plan to expand the abhorred stretch of I-35 that snakes through the center of Austin. Dubbed the Capital Express Project, the proposal’s potential changes were drastic: In addition to adding two levels of tunnels, it would widen the highway on each side by several lanes and significantly increase the interstate’s footprint. State officials proclaimed the proposition, still in its infancy, as the long-awaited answer to the capital city’s notorious traffic woes.

“This is a huge choke point for the entire state of Texas,” Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Bruce Bugg said of the plan. “We now have a solution on the table. The time for talk is over. The time for action is now.”

On its face, the proposal seemed like a promising offer for Austinites who spend countless hours idling on the most congested stretch of road in all of Texas. But in reality, it was the blueprint for an ineffective, outdated strategy that would only spur sprawl, transportation advocates argued. In fact, they pointed out, studies show that roadway buildout actually increases congestion because it fuels the need for car-centric transit.

All of this was on the mind of Austin Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison as she drove up to Dallas later that fall. Born and raised on the capital city’s East Side, she knew the impacts of highway expansion all too well. The place where Black residents had been subjected to decades of systemic racism and financial redlining after being forcibly moved to in 1928, East Austin was effectively cut off from the rest of town by I-35. As a result, the interstate wasn’t just a hulking mass of concrete and asphalt, she said: It was oftentimes the dividing line between the haves and the have-nots.

Given these experiences, Harper-Madison was eager to explore alternative transportation solutions when she first learned about TxDOT’s proposal. Enter Klyde Warren Park, a 5.2-acre public space that was established atop a downtown stretch of Dallas’ Woodall Rodgers Freeway in 2012. Witnessing the vibrant, tree-lined area was nothing short of revelatory, Harper-Madison said. The complex, once consumed by concrete and traffic congestion, had been converted into a natural gathering ground for people from all walks of life.

[…]

That trip couldn’t be more pertinent for Harper-Madison and her fellow Austin officials these days. That’s because TxDOT is now on the verge of pushing forward plans to expand I-35 — a painstaking endeavor that leaders worry could result in a big-money boondoggle if not handled correctly. For context, there are three community-drawn proposals that would limit the highway’s existing footprint, downsize it to an urban boulevard, or even incorporate Klyde Warren–inspired green spaces, but the state has shown little interest in entertaining them. Instead, TxDOT has prioritized two “build alternatives” that would simply demolish the I-35’s upper decks and widen the thoroughfare considerably.

Such proposals (which are eerily similar to those being contested in Houston) run in direct opposition to the town’s long-term transportation plans because they double down on a car-centric model less than two years after Austin voters approved a $7 billion mass transit bond. Residents don’t want bigger highways, Harper-Madison said. They want smarter, forward-thinking ways to get around their city.

If allowed to move forward, TxDOT’s proposed expansion will engulf nearly 150 homes and businesses along the interstate. Many of these, like the Stars Cafe and the Austin Chronicle building, are local institutions. Others, such as the Escuelita del Alma day care center, Taqueria Los Altos, and Hector the Barber, are popular utilities whose erasure would leave a glaring absence in nearby communities. With Austin already struggling to combat skyrocketing costs of living and growing suburban sprawl, now isn’t the time to push people out, Council Member Greg Casar said.

I don’t live in Austin, and I don’t have to deal with I-35, which by any definition is a mess and a hellhole. But when I hear about a $7.5 billion plan to widen and add capacity to I-35, I don’t see a solution, I see an even bigger nightmare of construction-induced worse traffic, neighborhoods and existing businesses being displaced and destroyed, and an even bigger traffic problem a few years down the line. I wonder what a $7.5 billion investment in mass transit might look like. And if you do live in Austin and have similar thoughts about this, I say raise hell and fight it with all you’ve got, because they will steamroll you otherwise. Good luck, you’re going to need it.

There will probably be another freeze this winter

Hopefully not as bad, but, well, you know.

Savor the rest of the summer and all of fall because this winter in Texas is going to be “frigid and flaky” similar to February’s deadly storm, according to the Farmers’ Almanac.

The Almanac, which has been predicting the weather outlook for farmers and gardeners for over 200 years, says to expect a “frosty flip-flop winter” for the United States. For most of the country, there will be near-normal amounts of snow with some notable month-to-month variations, the Alamanc says.

In late January, Texas and Oklahoma may be in for icy weather “like you experienced last winter,” according to the Almanac’s report.

The Farmers’ Almanac previously predicted Texas’ winter storm Uri in which heavy snowfall, ice storms and bitter temperatures brought an enormous strain on the state’s power grid, leaving millions without electricity. Over 200 people died.

[…]

Before Texans start booking resort days in Cancun, the almanac is hoping the conditions will not be as bad as Uri.

“Hopefully, it won’t be as robust, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared,” the Almanac said.

We can talk about Greg Abbott’s approval ratings right now all we want. If we have another freeze that’s anything like this past February, especially if people lose power like they did this year, forget it. After all his claims about how everything was fixed now, he better damn well hope so.