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January 21st, 2022:

Judicial Q&A: Blair McClure

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. Much more information about Democratic primary candidates, including links to the interviews and judicial Q&As, can be found on Erik Manning’s spreadsheet.

Blair McClure

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

My name is Blair McClure and I am a candidate for Harris County Justice of the Peace Precinct 2 Place 2. This position was held by the Hon. George E. Risner for some 34 years, and I am honored to be considered to take his place.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The Justice of the Peace in Texas presides over the Justice Court, which has jurisdiction in civil matters in which the amount in controversy is not more than $20,000, and in eviction cases. The criminal jurisdiction of the Justice Court includes misdemeanors punishable by a fine only, the most common being traffic offenses and Class C misdemeanors such as public intoxication, disorderly conduct, simple assault, and theft of property valued at under $100. The Justice of the Peace also presides over the Truancy Court, conducting cases where a child has been absent from school without excuse. And, the Justice of the Peace has a vast array of administrative duties, for example, dangerous dog determinations, determinations of the rights of owners of towed vehicles, and applications for occupational drivers’ licenses.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

The Justice Court is almost always a citizen’s first contact with the justice system, and I want the opportunity to serve the citizens of this community by bringing a common sense approach to equal justice for all. I want to promote dignity in court proceedings, processing cases timely and efficiently.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

While I am not a lawyer, I plan to bring my life experiences, and my willingness to work hard to this position. I have served the Justice Court Precinct 2 Place 2 as a community outreach liaison which has allowed me to become familiar with the laws and procedures governing Justice Courts; and I have 35 years of work experience with IBM as a project manager that has given me the practical knowledge and people skills which I can use to competently deliberate and decide the various types of disputes filed in the Justice Court.

5. Why is this race important?

The Justice Court is almost always a citizen’s first contact with the justice system, and a Justice of the Peace engages with the community on a grass roots level. I feel it is important to provide court participants with an opportunity to be heard, fairly and impartially, and to render decisions in accordance with the governing procedures and laws. I want to promote dignity in court proceedings, and process cases timely and efficiently.

6. Why should people vote for you in March?

I feel that I am the most qualified candidate in this race. I have been a resident of the Precinct 2 community for over 50 years. I bring the experience of 35 years as a project manager for IBM, and my service as the Court’s outreach liaison. I bring the understanding of the nature of the justice court as a place where citizens can go to assert their claims acting pro se. And, I want the opportunity to work hard to serve the citizens of the Precinct 2 community by brining a common sense approach to equal justice for all.

Sid Miller’s political consultant indicted

Well, this is interesting.

Todd Smith, a top political consultant to Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, was indicted Tuesday on felony charges of theft and commercial bribery related to taking money in exchange for state hemp licenses that are doled out through Miller’s office, according to Travis County district attorney José Garza.

Smith was arrested in May, accused of taking $55,000 as part of the scheme, according to an arrest warrant affidavit. Smith and others were accused of soliciting up to $150,000 to get an “exclusive” hemp license from the Texas Department of Agriculture. Smith allegedly said $25,000 would be used for a public poll on hemp. A hemp license from the state costs $100, according to the arrest warrant.

“We are holding accountable powerful actors who abuse the system and break the law,” Garza said. “Our community needs to know that no one is above the law and will face justice.”

Smith could not immediately be reached for comment but his attorneys said in a statement that their client has not broken any laws.

“We are disappointed that the Travis County District Attorney has obtained an indictment against Todd Smith, he was not invited to address the grand jury. He is not guilty of these charges and intends to vigorously defend himself against the allegations made by the Travis County District Attorney’s Office,” attorneys Sam Bassett and Perry Minton said in a statement.

[…]

Miller on Tuesday evening declined immediate comment, saying he was just learning the news of the indictment from the Tribune reporter. He later went on conservative radio host Chad Hasty’s show and said he’s gonna review indictment, but he’s “not ready to throw [Smith] under the bus” and is “not surprised,” suggesting it’s politically motivated. Miller says he still doesn’t believe Smith did anything wrong.

Smith has faced scrutiny before over his conduct and ties to the Department of Agriculture. In 2018, the Austin American-Statesman reported that Smith promised a San Antonio businessperson an appointment with the Department of Agriculture in exchange for a $29,000 loan. And in 2016, Miller gave Smith’s wife a newly created assistant commissioner position, one of the highest-paying roles in the department.

Miller is unlikely to take this seriously, though he did dump Smith shortly afterwards. His Republican opponents have been all over the story, and I suppose it’s always best to be proactive. As for the indictment itself, I think we all know that this sort of thing either gets resolved very quickly, via a plea deal or (more likely) the charges getting tossed, or it drags out for months if not years. To whatever extent this has an effect on Miller’s re-election chances, it will be because of what has already happened. We already know what kind of a person Sid Miller is, but it never hurts to have a reminder. The Chron and Reform Austin have more.

The Houston Local News Initiative

More news is good news.

Five foundations, including three local philanthropies, are investing more than $20 million to launch an independent nonprofit news outlet in Houston, entering the city’s competitive media landscape.

The Houston Endowment, the Kinder Foundation and Arnold Ventures on Wednesday said the yet-to-be-named news operation will be one of the largest of its kind nationally when it launches late this year or early next year on multiple platforms. The philanthropies, joined by journalism foundations American Journalism Project and Knight Foundation, said they seek to “elevate the voices of Houstonians” and “answer the community’s calls for additional news coverage.”

“All Houstonians deserve to be informed about the issues that impact their lives,” said Ann Stern, CEO of the Houston Endowment. “We are thrilled to support the expansion of local reporting in Greater Houston – combining the highest standards of journalism with an innovative community-focused reporting model.”

News organizations are increasingly expanding their footprint in Houston, ramping up competition for advertising dollars and journalism consumers in one of the nation’s largest media markets long served by the Houston Chronicle. Founded in 1901, the Chronicle is one of the nation’s largest regional media companies with the largest newsroom staff in Texas and more than 1 million print readers weekly. The Chronicle’s digital platforms, including its premium news website HoustonChronicle.com and its advertising-supported news website Chron.com, receive 30 million monthly visits.

[…]

Community Impact, an Austin-based hyperlocal newspaper, last month announced plans to break ground on its Houston regional headquarters this quarter. When completed later this year, more than 55 journalists and media employees are expected to work out of the new 16,000-square-foot office in Jersey Village. Over the past 15 years, several news outlets, including CultureMap and Houstonia, also have started operating in the city.

The new Houston nonprofit news outlet was born from a two-year research effort led by the American Journalism Project, a local journalism philanthropy that conducted local focus groups, community listening sessions and surveys to analyze Houston’s media landscape and identify gaps in news coverage. The new media outlet will follow in the footsteps of the Texas Tribune, which launched 13 years ago as a statewide nonprofit, nonpartisan online news outlet covering state politics and policy.

The Houston nonprofit will be funded by philanthropic dollars, memberships and sponsorship revenue. The Houston Endowment and the Kinder Foundation each contributed $7.5 million to the nonprofit newsroom. Arnold Ventures contributed $4 million, the American Journalism Project $1.5 million and the Knight Foundation $250,000.

The three local philanthropic foundations behind the new outlet said they will not have editorial control, review, oversight or influence over the journalism created and distributed.

I like this. The Texas Tribune model works pretty well, and there is definitely a niche to be filled here. You’ve seen me complain enough about the lack of coverage on local races, for example. To be fair, that’s partly because they don’t generate all that much news on their own, but between candidate forums, finance reports, advertising, social media, and just plain talking to people, there’s plenty there to provide more than the stale two-sentences-per-candidate race overview. The initiative’s website is here and they’re hiring, so if this is something that you or someone you know might be interested in, now’s your chance. The Press has more.

Have I mentioned that we need to get more kids vaccinated?

Seriously, y’all.

Since November, 693,345 Texas elementary-age children have received at least one dose of the vaccine, accounting for about 24% of the state’s 2.9 million children ages 5-11 — and a figure in line with the national rate. Nearly 390,000 of the 5-11 group are fully vaccinated, while more than half of Texans ages 12-15 are fully vaccinated.

Texas’ child vaccination rate is higher than in many other Southern states, where rates as low as 10% are being recorded. In the first two weeks after the shot was approved for emergency use in the younger age group, some 100,000 children showed up to Texas school clinics, pharmacies and pediatricians’ offices to get inoculated.

[…]

At Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, positive cases among patients went from zero in early December to some 70 patients with COVID-19 a month later, mostly among unvaccinated children, said Dr. Jim Versalovic, pathologist-in-chief for the hospital. Their hospitalizations of children with COVID-19 broke all previous pandemic records, and at breakneck speed, he said. Just weeks after omicron was first detected in Texas, it was causing more than 90% of new cases showing up at his hospital — less than a month after the vaccine was approved for young kids.

“We have staggering numbers here during this omicron surge,” Versalovic said in a news conference in early January.

That same day, the state broke its own record of children hospitalized with COVID-19, reporting 350 — five more than the previous peak a few months before.

On Friday, the state health department released data on 3.8 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Texas in the first two years of the pandemic. Almost 19% of them — 722,393 — were diagnosed in residents under age 20. The demographics do not include cases reported in 2022.

During the first week of January, the Texas Department of State Health Services and the Texas Education Agency reported that about 26,500 students and 11,800 staff members had been infected with COVID, according to data released Friday.

While the numbers of student cases are nearing levels not seen since the start of school last fall, there are more cases of COVID-19 among staffers than at any other time in the pandemic. The numbers are likely to increase as more districts report their numbers to the state. The current numbers include only about half of all of the state’s 1,200 districts, and the number of districts reporting any numbers is inconsistent from week to week.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the state reported 471 children in Texas hospitals with COVID-19. Most of them are unvaccinated, hospital officials have said. But there is no state data detailing how many COVID-19 child patients are in Texas pediatric intensive care units.

Yes, I’ve said this before. The numbers have climbed a bit since then, but there’s so much farther to go. As was the case with previous iterations of the vaccine, there was a large initial burst of activity, as the folks who had been eagerly awaiting the day that it became available for that group rushed out to get it, then it leveled off. The difference is that this time that initial burst was much smaller. Gotta say, I have no idea why. Get your kids vaccinated. What are you waiting for?