Endorsement watch: Ramirez, Haynes, Watson

Three endorsements for your consideration from the Chron.

Item one: Annette Ramirez for Tax Assessor.

Annette Ramirez

During the last meeting Ed Emmett led as the county judge, back in December 2018, Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously passed a little-noticed change to toll road collections. Instead of contracting with the outside law firm of Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson to go after drivers with unpaid tolls, the commissioners decided to transition to handling it in-house through the county attorney.

“During my time here, some of the saddest things I had to deal with were people who had racked up toll road fees that were exorbitant,” Emmett said, recalling constituents who ended up with thousands in fees for a charge that started off around $40.

A curious thing happened once the change went into effect in April 2019. The county didn’t lose revenue even though violation fees charged to drivers dropped by 45%. How is that possible? It seems that the county attorney arranged modified payment plans. More people paid up. The resolution of violations increased by 12%, according to Commissioner Rodney Ellis. The only loser appears to have been a collection firm that lost out on a lucrative and “predatory practice” as Ellis puts it.

How is all this related to the Democratic primary for Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector? We believe what worked with collecting tolls can work with property taxes as well, though it’s a more complex undertaking. We’re supportive of a candidate who can help that happen and leery of one who might try stand in the way. In May 2022, in another little-noticed vote, county commissioners once again were unanimous in asking the county attorney to create a plan to takeover from Linebarger the collection on new cases of people behind on their property taxes.

The five Democratic candidates running for tax assessor-collector all have impressive resumes. Annette Ramirez, 51, has the most relevant experience. As a practicing tax attorney for Aldine ISD, she handled delinquent taxes in-house. She’s done the job the county’s trying to accomplish at a larger scale. There are roughly 40,000 new delinquent accounts per year in Harris County.

We believe Ramirez would be the best partner to work with the county attorney on collecting taxes responsibly and in a way that does not unfairly add fee after fee until homeowners abandon their inheritance. The problem affects low-income communities the most. Many families struggle to figure out who owns a house after a parent dies without a will.

That was a good thing that former Judge Emmett and the Court did. All of the Tax Assessor candidates that I interviewed talked about the topic of delinquent taxes and how best to collect them without forcing a homeowner out of their residence, and they had varying plans for how to do it. You can listen to those interviews, beginning with the one for Ramirez, here:

Annette Ramirez
Danielle Bess
Jerry Davis
Desiree Broadnax
Claude Cummings

Item two: Gemayel Haynes for the new 486th Criminal District Court.

Gemayel Haynes

[Vivian] King, 65, now first assistant to District Attorney Kim Ogg, touts her influence in changing a culture at the DA’s office that under some previous administrations seemed to value winning cases over pursuing justice.

We admire her passion and storied career but considerations of fairness, judicial temperament and a sense of accountability lead us to recommend her opponent, Gemayel Haynes, 41, assistant chief at the Harris County public defender’s office.

Haynes has 16 years in practice compared with King’s 31 years. Like King, he’s worked as a prosecutor and in private practice. He’s never tried a death case; King has tried two, including one that resulted in an acquittal on the capital murder charge. He points out that King has never worked for a public defender’s office, which, to be fair, didn’t exist during much of her career. She did handle appointments to represent criminal defendants.

Haynes says his time at the PD’s office has made his approach more well-rounded, not more lenient: “I can look at things from all angles and I’ve done that my entire career,” he told us in a side-by-side screening with King. “I am not a zealot.”

He says he’s endured personal loss to crime: his cousin was murdered in front of the family home. He understands the great responsibility judges have to weigh defendants’ rights in bail decisions right alongside public safety: “You do have people who are out on bail that make mistakes; they commit new offenses,” he said. “The consequence for that should match the level of the infraction.”

The first few paragraphs are devoted to candidate Vivian King; there’s no mention at all of the third candidate in the race, Roderick Rodgers, who I suppose maybe didn’t show up for the screening. My Q&A with Vivian King is here. Haynes (and for that matter Rodgers as well) did not send me Q&A responses, but he was a candidate in 2022 and filled out my questionnaire for that primary. His responses for when he was running for the 183rd Criminal Court are here.

Item three: Fran Watson for the new Harris County Probate Court #5.

Fran Watson

To shape that shiny new court, we recommend Fran Watson. Her experience working in courtrooms sets her apart from her opponents: She’s currently the staff attorney for Probate Court 2, and has served as an associate municipal judge.

Watson also has a compelling life story. At age 14, after losing her mother to substance abuse, she became her family’s caretaker; and, after too many absences, was expelled from school. She knows, first-hand, the kind of stress felt by the people appearing in probate court.

We were also impressed by probate lawyer Chavon Carr. She advocates adding wraparound services that would help opposing parties find collaborative solutions; and believes that probate courts need to do more outreach, so that everyday people understand things like how much chaos they can spare their loved ones simply by having a will.

Troy Moore, the third candidate in the race, is an experienced probate lawyer.

My Q&A with Fran Watson is here, with Chavon Carr is here, and with Troy Moore is here. It is indeed nice to have good choices.

The Chron’s full list of endorsements so far is here. I’m glad to see the Chron endorsing outside of just the criminal courts, but I sure wish they would take the time to review and endorse in the races for Civil Court as well. There are a lot of contested races over there, and while I have my Q&As and the various club and org endorsements via the Erik Manning spreadsheet, having that extra data point from the Chron is helpful. As a non-lawyer, I appreciate having all the data I can get. Maybe next time.

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