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Christian Menefee

Some I-45 work to resume

Just some design work, for now.

Federal officials have lifted their pause on a small piece of the planned Interstate 45 mega-project that will remake downtown Houston’s freeway system and has divided state transportation planners, community groups and local politicians.

Giving the go-ahead to two parts of the $10 billion-plus project — work along Interstate 69 and at Texas 288 to rebuild where the three freeways converge near Third Ward — staves off the possibility of state officials removing all of the project’s funding from Texas’ 10-year highway plan and provides a glimmer of hope that officials locally, in Austin and Washington can find some common ground.

“Things are moving in what seems to be a positive direction,” said J. Bruce Bugg, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission.

[…]

After weeks of meetings between state and federal highway officials, the Texas Department of Transportation can proceed with “detailed design work” of the southernmost stretches of the project, portions of the downtown redesign called Segment 3, removing them from the development pause put in place by federal highway officials in June. In a Nov. 29 letter from FHWA Chief Counsel Andrew Rogers, federal officials said recent discussions represent “a good start” but set parameters for any design work to proceed.

Specifically, Rogers said FHWA “is not prepared at this time to allow TxDOT to resume any right-of-way acquisition in Segment 3.” TxDOT, he added, could acquire properties from owners who approach it on a case-by-case basis “rather than relying on eminent domain.”

See here and here for some background; the story also references the lawsuit filed by Harris County that has been temporarily paused to allow the discussion that led to this agreement. It seems like the intent was to keep I-45 on the TxDOT project list for at least a little longer, to see if an agreement among all the parties can be reached. I don’t know how likely that is, but it never hurts to talk.

Though there is concern about the project’s impacts in Midtown, Third Ward and Eado, the most vocal opposition to the project emanates from north of downtown where TxDOT proposes to add two managed lanes in each direction to I-45. That widening, which requires the destruction of hundreds of homes and businesses adjacent to the freeway, has drawn scorn and accusations that highway officials are perpetuating decades of carving freeways through low-income and minority communities to the detriment of those neighborhoods.

“Wider highways are not an appropriate or effective intervention to expand commerce opportunities, and they do not expand opportunities for those bearing the greatest burdens of the expansion,” more than 15 groups wrote in a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, released Tuesday. “Highway construction and expansion interrupt lives, displace people from their homes and businesses, and decimate generational wealth, especially in communities of color.”

The letter, a response to a letter sent by seven Houston-area Congressman urging Buttigieg to not impede the project, was drafted by Stop TxDOT I-45, which formed to oppose the project, along with Air Alliance Houston and 14 environmental, community or left-leaning groups.

See here for more on that, and here for the response letter, which also observes that the people who want to get the I-45 project going don’t represent those who will be affected by it. I doubt there’s an agreement that satisfies everyone, but there are definitely options that do a better job of minimizing harm and promoting equity. That’s what we need to aim for.

Harris County to pause the I-45 lawsuit

Gonna give talking a try. You never know.

Harris County will pause its lawsuit against the Texas Department of Transportation over the proposed Interstate 45 widening in hopes that it leads to a consensus that has eluded them for more than four years.

The pause, approved unanimously by Commissioners Court at a special meeting Monday, instructs County Attorney Christian Menefee to seek a stay on the lawsuit in federal court as he negotiates with TxDOT to resolve differences between the changes the county seeks to the project and the current plan.

The project, estimated to cost at least $9 billion, would rebuild and widen I-45 from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8, including the freeway’s interchanges with Interstate 69, Interstate 10 and Loop 610 in Independence Heights.

The stay and pause, officials said, would give an opening to officials to work out details of the planned freeway widening without backing off their opposition to what TxDOT is proposing.

“I am willing to consider a pause,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said. “Not a dismissal, but I hope that will demonstrate our commitment.”

Menefee said he will ask the court for a stay of 30 days, and then potentially extend that for an additional 30 days if the discussions are “fruitful.”

“The pause is a show of good faith by the county to remind TxDOT that we’re in this to find solutions and address community concerns,” Menefee said in a statement. “We expect TxDOT to work alongside us to achieve the same. If that does not happen, the county will resume the suit and we’ll let the courts decide.”

[…]

Skepticism remains high among project opponents that TxDOT can be a willing participant. Jeff Peters, a member of the Stop TxDOT I-45, said backers consistently have bullied people into accepting their design with the threat of doing nothing if they do not get their way. He urged the county to proceed with the lawsuit, rather than relent.

“This is a critical piece of leverage that can bring TxDOT to the bargaining table,” Peters told Commissioners Court before it approved the pause.

Highway officials, however, have said since March that the federal review and lawsuit leave them no choice but to stop talking. At an Oct. 21 forum sponsored by Transportation Advocacy Group-Houston Chapter, Texas Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan said the pause by the Federal Highway Administration and county lawsuit were more of an obstacle to open dialogue because they impede TxDOT from designing alternatives.

“We can’t spend money to design and we can’t spend money to do those things,” Ryan said at the forum, which drew criticism because it was for paying guests only at an event sponsored by various engineering, construction and planning firms.

See here for the background. As noted recently, there are other obstacles to the project, though perhaps if Harris County and TxDOT can settle their differences, those can be handled as well. I’m fine with this approach – if there’s a path to meeting the needs of the many people and groups that have been objecting to the design of this project, then sure, let’s go for it – but I wouldn’t get my hopes up too much. There’s already been a lot of time for talk, and I don’t know how much latitude TxDOT has to give. There’s some risk here for Harris County as well, as the opponents of this project aren’t likely to be happy with half a loaf. But hey, lawsuits are time- and resource-intensive, and they often end in settlements anyway, so why not give this a try. You never know.

More on the Abbott max anti-vaxx order

Businesses will face a choice that they would rather not have to face.

Companies doing business in Texas face new and complicated challenges after Gov. Greg Abbott this week banned COVID-19 vaccine mandates for all entities in the state — including private businesses — for employees or customers.

The ramifications for businesses could begin as soon as Friday, when companies that enter into contract work with the federal government will be required to have all employees vaccinated under orders from the White House.

This conflicts with Abbott’s ban on vaccine mandates, putting the many Texas businesses that receive federal contracts in a tough position: Comply with federal law and violate Abbott’s ban, or comply with Abbott and turn down business from the federal government.

[…]

“This harms Texans directly,” Karen Vladeck, an employment lawyer in Austin, said of the new order from Abbott. “I just think it wasn’t well thought out.”

Abbott’s office did not reply to a request for comment.

On top of prohibiting any entity in Texas from requiring vaccinations, Abbott’s order also lists several expanded exemptions. Vladeck and other employment lawyers said that this adds to the vaccine dilemma facing businesses in Texas. Under Abbott’s new rule, people may opt out of a vaccine requirement for medical reasons, including if they prove they have had COVID-19 in the past, despite scientists widely agreeing that this does not protect people against contracting the virus.

“The executive order’s medical reason language is a bit strange because usually you exempt people for medical reasons if they have a severe allergic reaction to a vaccine,” said Elizabeth Sepper, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Abbott’s order is “meant to cover people who don’t want to get the vaccine because they believe, quite wrongly, that they’re completely protected by already having COVID.”

Abbott’s rule also allows people to opt out of a vaccine requirement if they prove they hold a deep personal belief against getting jabbed.

Any entity that fails to comply with Abbott’s rule could receive up to a $1,000 fine.

Abbott’s Monday order is a reversal from his position in August, when the Pfizer vaccine received final approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. At the time, Abbott’s spokesperson said that businesses had the option of mandating vaccination for employees and “private businesses don’t need government running their business.”

“It’s all about company choice in Texas, except now it’s come to something that they don’t like what the companies are choosing,” Vladeck said. “It puts a big burden on employers.”

See here for the background. So far, businesses that are also federal contractors, including airlines and companies like IBM, will ignore Abbott’s order, while others are awaiting the OSHA rules before making a decision. Multiple business groups, the same organizations that often turn to the state for a legislative solution to local ordinances they don’t like, harshly criticized Abbott’s order for making their lives more difficult. Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee released a statement encouraging businesses that want to be able to get their employees vaccinated to file a lawsuit against Abbott over the order. And in the end, even wingnut talk radio hosts weren’t impressed by Abbott’s order. It’s almost as if he were a weak, gutless leader.

A little sandbagging from the SOS on the fraudit

Who’s running this show?

In the five days since the Texas secretary of state’s office announced it is auditing the 2020 general election in four counties, local officials indicated they were in the dark about what the reviews would entail.

Now, they’ve learned they cover some of the standard post-election procedures local officials are already required to undertake.

On Tuesday night, the state agency that oversees elections offered the first glimpse of what it has dubbed a “full forensic audit” of the election in Harris, Dallas, Tarrant and Collin counties, but it appears the scope of the effort may be more limited than what the term may suggest. The secretary of state’s documentation explaining the parameters of the reviews notes the first phase includes partial manual counts of ballots and security assessments, which all counties are already required to undergo.

The second phase, which is slated for “spring 2022,” will be an examination of election records “to ensure election administration procedures were properly followed.” That includes reviews of records of voting machine accuracy tests, rosters for early voting, forms detailing chain of custody for sealed ballot boxes and other election materials maintained by the counties.

But the secretary of state also indicates it will review records that counties already provide to the office, including the “reasonable impediment declarations” filled out by voters who indicate they lack one of the photo IDs the state requires voters to present to cast a ballot.

[…]

Officials in Harris County on Tuesday morning indicated they remained unaware of what the audits would cover despite comments by Abbott that the reviews “actually began months ago.” Now, it appears the governor was, at least in part, referring to processes counties are separately required by law to complete.

For example, the partial manual counts of ballots listed under the first phase of the reviews must be conducted within 72 hours of polls closing after every single election.

The reviews also provoked criticism that invoked the politically driven election review in Arizona that has been mired by ineptitude and described by the Arizona secretary of state as an exercise plagued by “problematic practices, changing policies, and security threats.” The report of the Arizona review, which confirmed President Joe Biden won the state, was compiled by Cyber Ninjas, a contractor that received $5.7 million from pro-Trump groups to fund the audit.

In releasing the details about the reviews, a spokesman for the secretary of state emphasized the office would not be “hiring or contracting with an outside firm to conduct these audits.”

See here and here for the background. I guess it’s good that we’re not throwing millions of dollars at a bunch of pro-Trump grifters who will come in and do a lot of damage, but the word for all this is still “pathetic”. If the purpose was to take these existing actions and package them as a true fraudit, so as to appease their god-king, it didn’t work.

Gov. Greg Abbott is failing to appease some inside his party — including former President Donald Trump — with the “forensic election audit” that the state announced Thursday.

Trump released a letter to Abbott on Thursday urging him to add audit legislation, which could allow a review of mail-in and in-person ballots across the state, to the agenda for the current special session agenda. Instead, the secretary of state’s office announced later that day that it was already starting to audit the 2020 election results in four of the state’s biggest counties.

In a new statement to The Texas Tribune on Wednesday, Trump said it is “a big mistake for Texas” not to pass the audit legislation, House Bill 16 by Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands.

“By allowing the Democrats to do what they do, it will make it much harder for the Governor and other Republicans to win election in 2022 and into the future,” Trump said. “Texas is a much redder state than anyone knows, but this is the way to make sure it turns blue.”

Trump assumes, with quite a bit of justification, that he can get Abbott to roll over and supplicate himself further. There’s only one reasonable response to this.

A resolution from Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo denouncing the election audits for 2020 election results in four large Texas counties passed Tuesday night 3 to 2, with Democrats in favor and Republicans against.

Hidalgo has called the audit, which centers on Harris, Dallas, Tarrant and Collin counties, a “sham” and a political maneuver to fuel conspiracy theorists who keep pushing the false narrative that Donald Trump won the 2020 election.

[…]

Harris County Commissioner Tom Ramsey was one of the two Republicans who voted against the resolution Tuesday night, arguing “transparency is not a bad thing.”

A few days prior to the resolution, Hidalgo warned continuing the conversation around election results “lends some credence” to conspiracy theories that fraud exists.

“These are the kinds of folks that stormed the capital. They are not going to be persuaded that their conspiracy theories are false,” Hidalgo said in a Sunday Twitter video. “It can’t be that the strategy of one party is to burn it all to the ground when their candidate doesn’t win. That’s how you tear down a country, that’s how you tear down a democracy.”

Lina Hidalgo is a strong and competent leader. Greg Abbott is not. And Tom Ramsey is as much a disgrace as Abbott is. Draw him out of his undeserved position, y’all.

More on the fraudit

My God, Greg Abbott is a wimp.

Donald Trump’s letter to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott demanding he pursue an “audit” of the 2020 election set off a “mad dash” in the governor’s office as aides sought to figure out just how serious the former president was, according to two sources familiar with the situation.

In the letter, Trump called on Abbott to hold a “Forensic Audit of the 2020 Election” and pass HB 16, a bill recently filed in the Third Special Session of the Texas legislature, which would allow for an Arizona-style “audit” of the presidential election.

“Despite my big win in Texas, I hear Texans want an election audit!” Trump wrote in a public letter addressed to Abbott on Thursday. “Texas needs you to act now. Your Third Special Session is the perfect, and maybe last, opportunity to pass this audit bill. Time is running out.”

Just hours after Trump released the letter, a statement was put out by Sam Taylor, assistant secretary of state for communications, who said the office had “already begun the process” of reviewing 2020 votes in the state’s two largest Democrat and two largest Republican counties: Dallas, Harris, Tarrant and Collin. Trump only won Collin County, and Biden won Dallas, Harris and Tarrant counties in 2020.

During an interview with “Fox News Sunday,” Abbott said that the audits “began months ago”— a statement that echoed the claim made by the office of the secretary of state.

“State audits conducted by the Texas Secretary of State’s office have already been underway for months,” Renae Eze, press secretary for the governor, said in a statement. “Under federal law, county election officials only have to keep these materials for 22 months, and it is imperative that all aspects of elections conducted in 2020 are examined before the counties clear out these materials in September 2022.”

But in reports from both the Texas Tribune and CNN, local officials in counties targeted by the “audit” said they had not learned of the review until Thursday’s statement from the secretary of state’s office.

And behind the scenes, the Texas governor’s office was caught off guard by Trump, whose letter made no mention of “audits” already underway. There had not been contact between Trump and Abbott ahead of the release, and Abbott’s office was uncertain if they could meet Trump’s demands to pass HB16 without complicating the legislative agenda. One Texas political aide familiar with how the process played out said, “The secretary of state‘s decision to call for audits in the four largest counties in Texas was predicated on Trump’s statement mentioning Gov. Abbott.”

“There was a mad dash to determine if Trump was actually being serious with his statement and it was decided this was the best route to take without blowing up the special session,” the aide said.

The scramble among Abbott’s team to placate the president illustrated the degree to which Trump and his election conspiracies continue to set the rules of engagement for virtually all other GOP elected officials.

See here for the background. I wish I had something thoughtful to say, but I don’t. This isn’t really a situation that calls for calm analysis. It requires calling a thing what it is, and that is to say that this is a disgrace and an embarrassment. Greg Abbott is a sniveling coward.

In the meantime, someone owes us some answers about this crap.

The top civil lawyer for Texas’s most populous county issued a records demand seeking information on the origins of Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) so-called “forensic audit” plans, including any communications between the secretary of state’s office and surrogates for former President Donald Trump.

“Governor Abbott and the Secretary of State are telling the public that this ‘audit’ has been going on for months, but this is the first time the County’s heard anything about it,” Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee wrote in a statement. “They’re on the news and issuing press releases about this ‘audit’, talking to everyone about it but us.”

“The administration has told us nothing about the purpose of or legal basis for this audit, what they’re requesting, or what the process will be,” Menefee added. “It’s my job to advise the County and the Elections Administrator on how to respond. I can’t do that without this basic information that neither the Governor nor the SOS has shared.”

In his two-page letter, Menefee addresses his records demand to the office of Texas’s Secretary of State, which is currently vacant. Menefee addressed the letter to the general mailbox for that office’s general counsel, requesting 14 categories of information.

Two of those categories relate to the governor’s office: One seeks “[a]ll communications between the SOS office and the Office of the Texas Governor or the Office of the Lieutenant Governor related to a complaint, allegation of fraud or misconduct, request for investigation or review, or question received by the SOS office regarding the November 2020 General Election in Harris County.”

The other demands “[a]ll communications between the SOS office and the Office of the Texas Governor or the Office of the Lieutenant Governor related to the ‘forensic audit’ of the November 2020 General Election in Harris County announced by the SOS on September 23, 2021 (as the SOS office’s announcement explicitly states the department ‘has already begun the process,’ this request also seeks communications dated prior to September 23, 2021).”

You can see the full letter embedded in the story. I fully expect this request to be stonewalled, and for Ken Paxton to slime his way in to defend not turning anything over. But it’s vital that we get as much information about this travesty and the ways in which our government has conspired to try to placate Donald Trump. This is what we elected Christian Menefee for. I have faith he is up to the task.

UPDATE: Hilarious and pathetic at the same time:

Someone who was his own person would be able to articulate what was happening in an accurate way. Someone who is a sock puppet, well. You know.

So we have a fraudit

What a load of crap.

The Texas secretary of state’s office announced late Thursday that it has begun a “full forensic audit” of the 2020 general election in four Texas counties: Collin, Dallas, Harris and Tarrant. But the statement from that agency did not explain what prompted the move.

There has been no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Texas in 2020.

Sam Taylor, a spokesperson for the office, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. No elections officials in the four counties immediately responded for comment.

The announcement came hours after Republican former President Donald Trump requested Gov. Greg Abbott add an election audit bill to this year’s third special session. While Trump lost his reelection bid, he did win in Texas.

It was unclear if his request was related to the announcement from the secretary of state’s office. But Taylor’s press release said the agency has “already begun the process in Texas’ two largest Democrat counties and two largest Republican counties—Dallas, Harris, Tarrant, and Collin.” While Tarrant has long been a Republican stronghold, Democratic President Joe Biden narrowly beat Trump there, according to the county’s election results.

Former Secretary of State Ruth Ruggero Hughs, who oversaw the 2020 elections, resigned when the Texas Senate refused to confirm her appointment. A deputy for Hughs called the 2020 election “smooth and secure” earlier this year.

Who knows what any of this even means, or what safeguards are in place to ensure integrity and transparency. I’d say that this was a rogue official going off on their own, but I think we all know that when Donald Trump tells a weak leader like Greg Abbott to do something, Abbott will comply.

In the meantime, county officials have responded, for the most part appropriately.

Harris County leaders on Friday blasted the Texas secretary of state’s decision to conduct a comprehensive “forensic audit” of the 2020 election in four counties, including Harris, as a political ploy to appease conspiracy theorists and former President Donald Trump.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo accused Gov. Greg Abbott of trying to curry favor with the former president, who on Thursday called for an audit of the Texas results, despite comfortably carrying the state in his unsuccessful bid for re-election. She likened the effort to audits in Arizona and Pennsylvania, which have failed to find major errors in vote tallying.

There is no evidence of widespread fraud or irregularities in Harris County’s 2020 election, where a record 1.7 million voters participated.

“This does not deserve to be treated as a serious matter or serious audit,” Hidalgo said. “It is an irresponsible political trick. It is a sham. It is a cavalier and dangerous assault on voters and democracy.”

Precisely who ordered the audits of election results for Harris, Dallas, Collin and Tarrant counties, as well as what they would entail, remains a mystery. The Secretary of State’s Office distributed a news release Thursday evening, though the secretary of state post has been vacant since May and spokesman Sam Taylor did not respond to a request for comment.

I’d forgotten that we don’t actually have a Secretary of State right now. I guess that “audit” must have gotten started on its own. Probably a computer glitch somewhere.

County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria said she was surprised by the secretary of state’s announcement, noting she had spoken with that office’s staff hours earlier about an unrelated matter. Longoria said no state agency or department has provided her with any information about how the audit of Harris County’s election results will be conducted.

After the 2020 contest, Longoria said her office conducted a partial manual review of mail ballots and electronic records from voting machines. Eleven months later, Longoria said she has turned her attention toward preparing for future elections.

“I’m now being blindsided about an audit that we have no information on and no direction on,” Longoria said. “My job is protect the voters… not just open up the books to whoever has a new conspiracy of the day, and let you run rampant with confidential election records.”

County Attorney Christian Menefee said the Texas audit “is clearly being done in bad faith” since it was announced just hours after Trump requested it. All three Harris County officials said they will comply with the law and any potential rulings from judges, but would otherwise not take the audit effort seriously.

“The goal of this is to intimidate our election workers and the folks who volunteer in elections, to undermine our confidence in democracy and to pander to … a gentleman who lost an election 11 months ago,” Menefee said. “We’re going to continue to push back where appropriate.”

Commissioners Court is divided over party lines on the audit. The two Democratic commissioners, Adrian Garcia and Rodney Ellis, said they agreed with Hidalgo’s criticism. Republican Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey said despite county elections officials’ assurances that the 2020 contest was conducted securely, he does not know if that is accurate.

“I think there’s enough questions there,” Ramsey said. “Obviously, you need to go back and look at the numbers. Just because there hasn’t been anything (found) at this point, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. That’s why you do an audit.”

OK, I’m back on the “redistrict that guy into oblivion” train. Harris County deserves way better than that.

Not just our county officials, either.

“The conspiracy theorists who want to come up with all these ways or reasons why this election wasn’t right — they might very well find something else [to doubt],” said Republican Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley. “It’s time to move on.”

Whitley and officials in Harris also said they have not been told what the audits entail or what prompted them. They said they learned about them from a late Thursday press release sent by a spokesperson in the secretary of state’s office. Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said an audit can have many forms, but Harris County elections administrator Isabel Longoria said her office hadn’t heard any details of what the state’s plans are as of noon Friday. Longoria said the county has already confirmed the results of the elections several times.

“If people want to hear it again and again and again and again, that nothing’s wrong — great,” she said. “But at what point are you going to be willing to hear the truth, that nothing was wrong with the November 2020 elections?”

[…]

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat, echoed Hidalgo’s remarks.

“This is a weak Governor openly and shamelessly taking his orders from a disgraced former President. Governor Abbott is wasting taxpayer funds to trample on Texans’ freedom to vote, all in order to appease his puppeteer,” Jenkins said over text message.

Jenkins said in an interview that Dallas County will not resist the audit for now — but if the state asks for more than what the county thinks is suitable under the election code, he could see challenging it in court.

Collin County had no comment at the time. Courage, y’all.

I’m sorry, I don’t have anything coherent to say about this. It’s bullshit all the way down, and I have a hard time taking its premise seriously enough to engage with it. But I will say this much, these guys have amazing timing.

On Friday afternoon, the leaders of the unorthodox 2020 election audit in Arizona announced the results of their monthslong, Trump ally–sponsored hunt for voter fraud in Maricopa County, which Joe Biden won by fewer than 11,000 votes out of millions cast.

The timing of the release hints at the significance of the audit’s findings. For months, Donald Trump has been billing the investigation as the thing that will provide definitive proof of his victory in Arizona. If the audit was going to show that the election was stolen from Trump by Democratic goons in cactus-covered antifa ski masks, why release it late on a Friday afternoon at a time usually reserved for dumps of information people want to go uncovered?

leaked report on Thursday evening offered an answer. The ballyhooed and controversially conducted hand count of nearly 2.1 million Maricopa County ballots still showed Biden defeating Trump, and though the margin changed by 360 votes it was actually Biden whose margin of victory grew from 45,109 to 45,469.

“This is yet the latest in a string of defeats for Donald Trump saying the election was rigged and fraudulent,” longtime Republican election attorney Benjamin Ginsberg said in a press call with the elections group States United. “[This] was their best attempt. This was an audit in which they absolutely cooked the procedures, they took funding from sources that should delegitimatize the findings automatically. This was Donald Trump’s best chance to prove his allegations of elections being rigged and fraudulent and they failed.”

It turns out that not even a partisan-funded and -conducted recount using procedures out of a Pee Wee Herman film could change the outcome. “The Cyber Ninjas couldn’t do the thing they were on the hook to do,” said cochairman of States United Norm Eisen.

I look forward to a similar result in Texas. Daily Kos and NPR have more.

More injunctions against the mask mandate bans

Keep ’em coming.

Concluding that Gov. Greg Abbott exceeded his authority by banning mask mandates in Texas, an Austin judge ruled Friday that school districts in Travis County can enforce face coverings as a COVID-19 precaution.

State District Judge Catherine Mauzy’s order also applied to 19 school districts that represent about 1 million students — including Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth and Houston — as well as Austin Community College, which also sued Abbott.

However, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton quickly appealed, automatically blocking enforcement of Mauzy’s temporary injunction — though the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals can be asked to reinstate the judge’s order while Paxton’s challenge proceeds.

In her ruling, Mauzy concluded Abbott’s ban on mandatory masks — contained in a July 29 executive order — was unlawful and exceeded his authority in violation of the Texas Constitution.

Mauzy found that the school officials and parents who challenged Abbott’s order made “a sufficient showing” to establish that Abbott was not authorized to declare “by executive fiat” that school districts are prohibited from requiring masks to be worn.

Without court intervention, Mauzy added, Abbott’s ban leaves school officials unable to mandate masks to control the spread of COVID-19, “which threatens to overwhelm public schools and could result in more extreme measures such as the school closures that have already begun in several Texas school districts.”

In a separate ruling, Mauzy also granted an injunction sought by Harris County to allow a mask mandate to continue for Houston-area school districts, said Christian Menefee, county attorney.

“Gov. Abbott is misusing the Texas Disaster Act to make this pandemic worse,” Menefee said, calling the ruling an important step in reining in the governor.

But in a third challenge, the judge declined to issue a statewide injunction, requested by the Southern Center for Child Advocacy, that would have allowed mask mandates in all Texas school districts. Mauzy’s one-page order gave no reason for the denial.

It’s hard to keep track of all of these, but see here for the original ruling in the Harris County case, and here for the original ruling in the SCCA case; the filing of their lawsuit was noted here. I have so many of these posts, some of which combine stories from multiple lawsuits, so I can’t find (and may not have) a post about the original Austin lawsuit, but the famous SCOTx demurral of the emergency request by Paxton and Abbott to block a TRO was related to the Austin/Travis County lawsuit. I note that the Harris County case and the SCCA case were originally in Judge Jan Soifer’s courtroom, so I am assuming that a bunch of similar lawsuits were combined into one and that’s how they all wound up before Judge Mauzy.

The injunction may be on hold because of the appeal (there’s some fancy legal term for this that I have encountered before but forgotten by now), but the plaintiffs can and surely will ask for it to be reinstated by the Third Court of Appeals. That will force another reckoning with the Supreme Court, thanks to the recent order in the Bexar County case. In a sense all of this is just sound and fury since Abbott and Paxton can’t enforce the mask mandate bans anyway, but the ritual must be observed. I feel like I should get a CLE credit for all of this blogging. HISD Superintendent Millard House’s statement about the ruling is here, and KXAN and the Trib have more.

Abbott admits he can’t enforce his mask mandate ban

So what are we even doing here? Just make your mandate and move on.

Gov. Greg Abbott has been embroiled in court battles with Texas cities, counties and public schools that have defied his ban on local mask mandates. But in the urban areas where those battles are being waged, the local officials Abbott needs to enforce his ban aren’t playing ball.

Even as Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton vow to punish local government and school district officials who flout the governor’s executive order, they conceded in court documents that they actually have no power to enforce the ban.

“Neither Governor Abbott nor Attorney General Paxton will be enforcing” the order, Paxton argued in a Monday court filing in Dallas.

Since the pandemic began, Abbott has issued a flurry of executive orders, the most prominent of which have limited cities and counties from enacting measures intended to slow the spread of COVID-19, like mask mandates and occupancy restrictions on businesses like restaurants and retailers.

Cities, counties and school districts in the state’s major urban areas have responded with a flood of lawsuits challenging Abbott’s executive order prohibiting them from enacting mask mandates amid a surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

In a bid to convince judges to toss out those legal challenges, Abbott and Paxton claim in recent court filings that they’re not the right target because it’s up to local prosecutors to enforce Abbott’s orders.

“The Governor’s executive orders, having the full force and effect of law, are enforceable by state and local law enforcement,” spokesperson Renae Eze said in a statement.

But in the state’s urban counties, those district attorneys are mostly Democrats who are unlikely to sue fellow local officials for violating Abbott’s order banning mask mandates.

“[Abbott is] saying, ‘Well, it’s not enforceable, only the DA can do it,” said Randall Erben, an adjunct law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Well, the DAs in Travis, Harris and Dallas are not going to prosecute anybody for violation of the executive order.”

In the state’s most populous county, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg doesn’t anticipate enforcing Abbott’s executive order because it’s not a criminal matter, a spokesperson said.

Abbott’s legal argument — tucked into court documents in at least five lawsuits challenging his order — has prompted some lawyers representing local governments and public schools to call out the governor and Paxton for saying one thing in public and another in the courtroom.

Yeah, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee was one of those people. This is, as the article notes later on, one hundred percent Abbott and Paxton beating their chests for the rubes. Again, never believe a word Ken Paxton says.

Two points to consider. One is that while those of us fortunate enough to live in a sufficiently enlightened county can now put whatever pressure we want on our mayors and county judges and school boards to move forward with their mask mandates, since there won’t be any criminal consequences for them and in that sense all of the ongoing litigation doesn’t really matter. But if your city or school district is not in such a place, then you really do care about what the Supreme Court will ultimately say, because your Mayor or Superintendent will be in the crosshairs otherwise. Even with a favorable SCOTx ruling, Abbott has ratcheted up the political pressure enough that it may not be worth it to them regardless. The harm they’re doing for the sake of winning the support of a depraved bunch of Republican primary voters is incalculable.

And two, this is now another example of Abbott and Paxton making “you can’t sue me” a key point of their governance. The “heartbeat” abortion ban atrocity is perhaps the highest-profile example, but Paxton’s claims that he’s exempt from the state’s whistleblower laws because he’s not a “public employee” are another, and it’s just as pernicious. It’s all about wielding power without responsibility or constraint. If trends hold to form, look for bills introduced by Republicans in the next Lege to include clauses about why the state can’t be sued by anyone who claims to have been harmed. At least, that will be the case until we have Democrats in the executive offices. At that point, it will be game on for limiting what they can do. But for now, we’re not supposed to sue them for anything because…well, just because.

Dallas County gets its injunction

Another big win.

Clay Jenkins

A district court judge has sided with Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins in his dispute with Gov. Greg Abbott over the county’s mask mandate, allowing the mandate to stay in place.

Judge Tonya Parker issued a temporary injunction Wednesday on Abbott’s order that public entities such as cities, counties and schools can’t issue mask requirements or mandates. The injunction allows Jenkins’ mask order — and the mask requirements of local school districts — to continue, for now.

Parker in her ruling said that Jenkins has shown that Dallas County residents “will suffer probable imminent and irreparable injury through County Judge Jenkins being precluded from exercising his authority” to require masks in public.

The judge noted that the highly transmissible delta variant threatens to overwhelm the healthcare system and has increased hospitalizations and death in Dallas County.

“Each of these bases for probable imminent and irreparable injury independently supports the issuance of the requested temporary injunction,” the ruling said.

The temporary injunction will return Jenkins to “the position he was in” before Abbott’s executive order that barred face mask requirements, the ruling said.

Parker set a hearing for Jan. 10 to review the temporary injunction, though attorneys for the state could file an appeal to Parker’s ruling sooner than that.

See here for the background. A copy of the ruling is here, and you can see Judge Jenkins doing a media call about this here. This will be appealed, of course – one presumes that Paxton and Abbott have learned their lesson and will go through the appellate courts first – and we’ll see how long that takes. It may be that at the least SCOTx is less inclined to grant emergency relief. We’ll know when it gets to them. For now, a win for the good guys.

On a related note, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee sent out an interesting press release that notes some differences between what Ken Paxton says in public about mask mandate bans and what he’s been saying in court about them.

In GA-38, the Governor banned school districts and local officials from mandating masks, and stated local officials who issue such safety measures would be subject to a “fine up to $1,000.” In response to recent mask mandates imposed by local officials, Attorney General Ken Paxton has stated publicly—and repeatedly—that his office will enforce Governor Abbott’s mask mandate ban. He and Governor Abbott joined together in stating that “any school district, public university, or local government official that decides to defy [the Governor’s mask mandate ban] will be taken to court.”[1] His office has compiled a list of “government entities unlawfully imposing mask mandates,” designed to intimidate those entities into compliance.[2] He has sent letters to many on that list, threatening them with enforcement.[3] He has tweeted several times he intends to sue these entities, most recently saying “I will defend TX Law & sue every entity that violates it. We will win!”[4]

Despite these public statements, the Attorney General admitted to the courts hearing the lawsuits brought by local officials and school districts that his office does not and cannot enforce GA-38, nor can he seek the $1,000 fine provided in the order. His office has stated plainly that “[n]either Governor Abbott nor Attorney General Paxton will be enforcing GA-38.”[5] Instead, the Attorney General acknowledges that only local district attorneys can enforce GA-38—he has claimed that entities like Harris County, other counties/cities, and certain independent school districts cannot sue the Governor and the Attorney General because they have “alleged no credible threat of prosecution by local district attorneys, who would be the ones enforcing GA-38.”[6]

Menefee added: “I presume the Attorney General is telling the truth in his court filings. He should be telling everyone else the same thing and letting local governments and school districts continue doing what they can to stop the spread of COVID-19, especially among our children.”

Go view the document to see the footnotes; the last two refer to the AG’s own filings in the cases involving Harris County and others. I mean, it’s not like anyone should have expected the truth from Ken Paxton, but it’s still bracing to see it laid out like that.

The status of the mask mandate lawsuits

The Chron does a roundup.

Texas courtrooms have become a busy place this August, with Attorney General Ken Paxton battling school districts, cities, counties and nonprofits to defend Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on local mask mandates aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Tracking the status of lawsuits can be dizzying.

“The way I like to think about it is there are four big buckets of cases and then there are some little minor cases out there,” said Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, whose county has sued both Paxton and Abbott over the ban on mask orders.

Those buckets include Harris County’s lawsuit; one brought by a group of school districts; one from Bexar County and San Antonio; and one from Dallas County. Those cases are the furthest along in the legal process, Menefee said, and he expects a final decision on Abbott’s mask order rules to come from one of those cases.

Harris County’s lawsuit and the school districts’ are proceeding along the same track, Menefee said. Local officials cheered a ruling late Thursday by the state Supreme Court, on a procedural question, that allowed the county’s mask mandate to stay in place for now.

The all-Republican high court could have ruled on the merits of the question, but chose not to, instead punting it to a lower court. This signals that the court isn’t yet prepared to offer a final decision on whether or not mask mandates across the state will be allowed to remain in place, he said.

“They could rule whenever. The fact that they haven’t issued a ruling I think is encouraging because I think that means they’re thinking about it,” Menefee said. “If they do that, that’s going to be the law of the land for Texas,” applying to all cases.

[…]

In Bexar County and San Antonio’s case, local officials won a temporary injunction from an appeal, allowing their mask mandates to remain in place while their case is pending. A trial is scheduled for December. Paxton’s office is likely to appeal that to the state Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Dallas County is fighting for a temporary restraining order to allow it to keep the mask mandate in place for the short term, a step that precedes arguments over a temporary injunction. That decision would last longer, months rather than weeks.

The stragglers, as Menefee described them, include a Fort Bend County case and a lawsuit from the Southern Center for Child Advocacy over many of the same issues.

A Fort Bend County district judge on Thursday granted the county a temporary injunction it its legal challenge to Abbott’s ban on mask mandates. County Judge KP George said it “removed the hurdles that have prevented our municipalities and school districts from taking the same action to protect their communities and the children…”

Thursday’s ruling should remain in place until the issue goes to trial in at least 45 days. Or Paxton could appeal the lower court’s decision to the state Supreme Court, as he has others, leaving it up to them to decide.

Hope that helps a little. And as a reminder of the legal questions, Erica Greider talks to an expert.

Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School at Law, reckons that local officials still face an uphill battle in their legal battles.

The Supreme Court of Texas, he explained, didn’t side against the state on the substantive question. It simply concluded that Paxton had skipped a step in the legal process, meaning that the statewide restraining order against Abbott’s executive order remains in effect while Paxton retraces his steps.

The TEA guidance on masks, similarly, isn’t a policy change on the agency’s part; rather, it’s a recognition that a temporary restraining order issued by Travis County District Judge Jan Soife blocking the enforcement of Abbott’s latest executive order remains in effect, while litigation is pending.

“The real bottom line is that Judge Soifer’s TROs are still in effect today, but they may not be tomorrow,” Vladeck said.

Vladeck thinks it’s more likely than not that the state’s highest court will eventually side with Abbott; after all, he noted, it previously issued stays against local mask mandates issued in Dallas and Bexar County — that’s “more than nothing, when it comes to reading tea leaves.”

At the heart of the case, Vladeck continued, are genuine substantive questions about the scope of the governor’s powers under the Texas Disaster Act of 1975.

“I think we can safely say they’re broad,” Vladeck said. “The problem is they’re surely not limitless.”

Judge Soifer, you may recall, ruled in both the Harris County case and the Southern Center for Child Advocacy case. As we have seen, there is a range of opinion on this litigation from the legal community. I tend to think Vladeck is right about what will happen – however subtle some of the legal questions are, there’s also the politics of it, and the Supreme Court is much more likely to give Greg Abbott what he wants than not – but it’s not an obvious question to answer. We should know more pretty quickly.

SCOTx does what SCOTx does

Room service, as always.

The Texas Supreme Court on Sunday temporarily blocked mask mandates in Dallas and Bexar counties, marking a pivotal moment in the showdown between state and local government as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations surge in Texas.

The ruling comes after several school districts and a handful of counties across the state defied Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order that restricted local entities from instituting mask mandates. On Friday, the 4th Court of Appeals in San Antonio upheld a lower court ruling that permitted Bexar County to require mask-wearing in public schools. Shortly after, the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas upheld a more far-reaching order from Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins that required masks in public schools, universities and businesses.

In a petition for a writ of mandamus to the Texas Supreme Court, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office said the Texas Disaster Act of 1975 gives the governor power to act as the “‘commander in chief’ of the state’s response to a disaster. Attorneys representing cities and counties that have sued Abbott over his executive order have argued that his orders should not supersede local orders.

“Let this ruling serve as a reminder to all ISDs and Local officials that the Governor’s order stands,” Paxton said in a tweet on Sunday after the ruling.

Abbott’s response to the decision was less pointed, specifying that his executive order does not prohibit mask-wearing.

“Anyone who wants to wear a masks can do so,” Abbott said in a tweet.

See here and here for the background. Abbott’s tweet is pathetic in its misrepresentation of the issue. Masking only works if the people who are sick – whether they know it or not – are in compliance. That means that the people who are most likely to be sick – unvaccinated adults and unvaccinated children, which is all children under the age of 12 – especially need to be masked, and as we very well know, that first group and their children are not ever going to do that voluntarily. My mask doesn’t protect me from you (unless I’m wearing an N-95), it protects you from me. If you’re not reciprocating, it’s not doing us any good. The problem with Greg Abbott is not that he doesn’t understand this, it’s that he values the opinion of the largely unvaccinated and completely indifferent Republican primary voters more than anything else. And so here we are.

As for Paxton, he’s wrong in two ways. First:

And second:

Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown last week required face coverings to be worn inside public schools and government buildings to deal with a surge in local COVID-19 infections. Both insisted the orders remained in effect because Sunday’s court action did not involve local rules.

“While we await a final decision, we believe local rules are the rules,” Adler said on Twitter. “Regardless of what eventually happens in the courts, if you’re a parent, please keep fighting to have everyone in schools masked. We stand with you.”

[…]

A number of other mask mandates rely on trial court orders not yet before the Supreme Court, including restraining orders issued Friday in Travis County for Harris County and a half-dozen South Texas school districts.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said Sunday’s Supreme Court action did not affect his county, and he plans to move forward toward an expected injunction hearing like Dallas and San Antonio.

The Chron story makes the same point. To be sure, Paxton can pursue the same kind of writ against Harris and Austin and those other school districts – several others that have as far as I know not been involved in litigation yet have implemented mask mandates – and when SCOTx issues a final ruling it can and likely will encompass all of the other jurisdictions in its order. But until then, no one other than Dallas and Bexar Counties are directly affected. And for what it’s worth, it’s not clear to me what would happen if they just decide to tell Abbott and Paxton and SCOTx to go pound sand. They haven’t yet, and they may never, but don’t throw out the possibility. The San Antonio Report has more.

UPDATE: Interesting:

I mean, he’s not wrong. And this is what I’m saying about the state’s ability to enforce this. As above, Paxton could go after DISD and make them comply. But until and unless he does, what’s stopping them from continuing on as they had planned?

UPDATE: This too:

At this point it’s not clear to me that anyone truly feels bound by this SCOTx order.

And it’s off to SCOTx for the mandate stuff

It’s where it was always headed.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is taking the mask mandate battle to the state Supreme Court after the state was defeated in its attempts to overturn such mandates in San Antonio and other municipalities.

Paxton made the announcement late Friday night in a tweet that read, “We have taken this mask mandate to the Texas Supreme Court. The Rule of Law will decide. — AGPaxton.”

On Friday, a three-judge panel of the 4th Court of Appeals denied Paxton and Gov. Greg Abbott’s request to overturn a temporary restraining order granted Tuesday that blocked Abbott’s ban on mask mandates and allowed the city to order masks in schools and government buildings.

“After considering the petition and the motion, this court concludes (the state) is not entitled to the relief sought,” Justices Luz Elena Chapa, Irene Rios and Beth Watkins wrote in their Friday ruling.

That same day, the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas also denied the state’s bid to overturn a mask order by Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. And in Travis County, a judge granted similar restraining orders against Abbott to Harris County and the South Texas school districts of Brownsville, La Joya and Edinburg, allowing them to keep mask mandates in place.

See here for some background, and here for a story about the Dallas appellate verdict. As far as I can tell, this hearing will review both of those rulings, and thus will obviously affect the other litigation going on. To that end, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee has submitted an amicus brief in support of Dallas and Bexar. I have no particular reason to believe that the Supreme Court will do anything other than offer the usual room service to the state, but I have to hope, because what else is there to do? I assume we will know shortly what they think. KXAN and the Trib have more.

Harris County gets its restraining order against Abbott

Step one.

A judge in Travis County on Friday granted Harris County a temporary restraining order, blocking Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on local COVID-19 restrictions.

The decision by Judge Jan Soifer of the 345th Civil District Court provides legal cover for the county health department, which Thursday issued a mask mandate for schools and day care centers at the direction of County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

“While this decision is temporary, it’s a victory for residents in Harris County who are concerned about this public health crisis,” County Attorney Christian Menefee said in a statement. “We need every tool at our disposal to stop the spread of COVID-19, including masks and other measures that are proven to slow the spread.”

A handful of area school districts, including the Houston, Spring, Aldine, Galena Park and Galveston Independent School Districts, have issued mask mandates. Others said they were waiting to see how the legal battles between the state and local officials are resolved.

[…]

[Harris County Judge Lina] Hidalgo on Aug. 5 moved the county to its highest pandemic threat level, which urges unvaccinated residents to stay home and avoid unnecessary contact with others. She said masks are particularly important in schools because children under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated, which health officials agree is the best defense against COVID-19.

Harris County’s order also requires schools to notify parents when a student comes into contact with someone who tests positive for the virus; the Texas Education Agency advises but does not mandate this.

“At this point, public health interventions like masking, contact tracing and notifications in schools remain (children’s) only protection against the virus,” Hidalgo wrote in a letter to superintendents Tuesday.

In his lawsuit, Menefee said the governor had exceeded the authority given to him by the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which, he argued, allows Abbott to suspend laws only in certain circumstances.

Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton, who was also named in the suit, are almost certain to appeal. The pair pledged in a joint statement Wednesday to sue any “school district, public university or local government official” who violates the governor’s executive order.

Randall Erben, a professor of the University of Texas School of Law, said Abbott has broad powers under the Disaster Act. This situation is unique, said Southern Methodist University law professor Nathan Cortez, because the governor is attempting to limit, rather than enhance, the government’s response to a disaster.

See here for the background, and here for a story about what other area ISDs are doing. I can’t blame any of them for waiting to see how the litigation winds up before changing course, though I would strongly encourage them to be as forcefully on the side of protecting their students and teachers and staff as much as possible.

As noted before, Abbott and Paxton are now appealing the lower court orders that allowed for the mask mandates to go forward for now. So far that isn’t going well for them, either, though that comes with an asterisk:

Yeah, we know that’s where this is going, and there’s no particular reason to be optimistic. It should also be noted that a district court judge in Tarrant County issued a TRO blocking the Fort Worth ISD’s mask mandate in response to a suit filed by some parents. That was a Republican judge, though there was more to the case than just the executive order. It’s not hard to see the partisan split, though. Still, every loss Greg Abbott suffers, even if transitory, is worth it.

Harris County sues Abbott and issues a mask mandate

Quite the busy day yesterday.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday issued a mandatory mask order for Harris County schools and daycares, joining the chorus of elected officials in the Texas’ larges cities in defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s order prohibiting local COVID-19 restrictions.

Hidalgo’s order requires students, teachers, staff and visitors to K-12 schools and daycare centers to wear face coverings. Schools also are required to notify parents when a student has close contact with someone who tests positive for the virus.

“There’s an unwritten contract between parents and their schools — and it’s that when our children are under the care of their schools, they do everything they can to keep them safe,” Hidalgo wrote in a letter to superintendents.

Houston ISD’s board of trustees already is expected to vote Thursday on a mask mandate proposed by Superintendent Millard House II. House announced he would bring such a proposal to the board last week.

Earlier on Thursday, County Attorney Christian Menefee filed a lawsuit challenging Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting local authorities from issuing COVID-19 restrictions, such as mask and vaccine mandates.

Menefee told the Houston Chronicle Tuesday evening that he believes the July 29 order violates the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which he said grants the governor the power limited authority to suspend laws.

“In his orders, he’ll suspend two to three laws specifically by name, and then he’ll say ‘any other laws that could allow a local official to do something inconsistent with what I’m doing,’” Menefee said. “That’s not how a democratic society works. You have separation of powers.”

Commissioners Court had previously authorized Menefee to file suit.

The move came at the end of a whirlwind day where local officials in Dallas and San Antonio prevailed — at least temporarily — in their own legal challenges to the governor’s order.

In Houston, the three Democrats on Commissioners Court voted to allow County Attorney Christian Menefee to bring his own case, over the objections of the two Republican members.

Menefee said he is undecided but leaning toward filing suit; he said the county would seek a temporary restraining order preventing the state from enforcing Abbott’s July 29 executive order prohibiting local governments from issuing local COVID-19 restrictions.

Abbott is exceeding his authority under the state Disaster Act of 1975, Menefee argued, which the county attorney said allows the governor to suspend laws in only narrow circumstances.

“What he’s doing is not helping in furtherance of coping with the disaster,” Menefee said. “Instead, he’s basically taking this power and turning it into a mechanism to tie local officials’ hands. The problem is none of the justifications he’s providing make any sense.”

See here for the background. Obviously, County Attorney Menefee made up his mind since then. Filing this suit, in the same manner as several other jurisdictions, was I think a straightforward choice. Winning it will be another matter.

If the past is any guide, the local governments are unlikely to prevail in court, said University of Texas School of Law Adjunct Professor Randall Erben. Governors have broad power under the Disaster Act, he said, noting that the state Supreme Court sided with Abbott when Travis County attempted to enact a New Year’s Eve curfew for restaurants.

“Given the precedent and given the broad discretion the governor has under that act, he’s probably on pretty solid ground,” Erben said.

The San Antonio Report consulted another expert with a similar opinion.

Political science and law experts agree that the local governments’ mask mandates have an unfavorable path forward, ending with the Texas Supreme Court; all nine justices are Republicans and have shown little appetite for ruling against the governor.

[…]

Despite the crisis, St. Mary’s University School of Law professor Michael Ariens believes the lawsuit’s ultimate success is a “long shot.”

Attorneys for the city and county relied on a dissenting opinion from a judge on the 8th Court of Appeals in a mask mandate case involving El Paso County, Ariens said: that Texas law does not allow the governor to suspend laws giving local governments the ability to respond to public health crises as they see fit.

“A decision by a dissenting [opinion] of the court, while sometimes correct,” Ariens said, “is not as helpful as a decision from a majority of the court.”

But getting the temporary restraining order granted in the first place puts San Antonio and Bexar County in a stronger position, he said, as it allowed the city to get a mask mandate in place in public schools and public facilities. That means “the ball is in the state government’s court,” he said, which will have to make a move “if it wants to change the status quo before Monday.”

A hearing is scheduled Monday morning; lawyers representing San Antonio, Bexar County, will ask to extend the temporary restraining order into a temporary injunction. If granted, the mask mandate would remain in place until trial or until the decision was appealed.

[…]

Abbott’s swift action to get a temporary restraining order lifted was expected, as the governor would not want to be seen as weak while school districts and local governments defy his executive order, said Jon Taylor, professor of political science and chair of the department of political science and geography at the University of Texas at San Antonio. But no matter the ultimate outcome, Taylor said, Abbott’s political standing will likely remain unaffected.

“A week is a lifetime in politics and this can radically change, but if the governor wasn’t hurt by what happened with the electric grid and the winter storm in February — and for the most part, he seems to have not been hurt by it — it’s probably the same kind of calculations here when it comes to the masking order and mandatory versus voluntary vaccinations,” Taylor said.

Henry Flores, professor emeritus of political science at St. Mary’s University, had a slightly different take. He believes the collective force of school districts, county judges, and mayors could push the weather vane in the opposite direction.

“He’s playing a tough game with everybody, but if enough people stand up to him and cause enough of an uproar, he’ll back down, I think,” Flores said. “And that might be the safe investment for him to make. … It’ll become too much of a political annoyance for him, and it could end up costing him dearly. He’s going to have to weigh all that.”

If the case moves quickly, and the Texas Supreme Court vacates the temporary restraining order, “chaos” could ensue, Taylor said. Not only would the back-and-forth cause further confusion among parents of schoolchildren, but leaders of Bexar, Dallas, and Harris counties could simply refuse to stop requiring masks.

“This is not some sort of radical rebellion,” he said. “You’re talking about school districts that are following CDC guidelines on masking. The other thing is this: because there’s enough prosecutorial discretion that’s involved, it takes time — obviously justice takes time — and any sort of delay in court action could be months from now, long after, hopefully, the crisis and the spike in delta has passed. It could all be a moot point by then anyway.”

I would quibble with the assertion that Abbott took “swift” action – as you know, I’ve been marveling at how long it took him to respond. Be that as it may, the point about the counties just not moving to undo what they have ordered is an interesting point. Abbott may win in court, but that doesn’t mean he’ll get his way, at least not right away. And I’d bet none of those county judges suffer for any of it politically, either. We have a ways to go before this is truly settled.

UPDATE: The HISD Board approved the mask mandate that Superintendent House requested.

Judges in Harris County implement mask mandate

It’s what all the responsible public officials are doing.

State judges in Harris County voted unanimously Tuesday to implement a mask mandate in courthouses that will supersede Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on such mandates, according to three judges who participated in the meeting.

The anticipated courthouse ban comes as Dallas County officials and school officials in districts across the state have begun bucking up against Abbott’s latest coronavirus ban, which prioritizes Texans’ right to make their own choices over the health emergency.

The local judges’ order comes amid a surge of COVID-19 infections boosted by the delta variant. The judges, who asked to remain anonymous because the order was not yet official, said the mandate should go into effect imminently, as soon as it is signed by an administrative judge.

The new rule calls for masks to be used by everyone — vaccinated or not — inside civil, criminal, family and juvenile court buildings. County Attorney Christian Menefee said it would also apply to county judges if they are in a shared building with district judges.

The state judges’ mandate follows a memo Friday from the Office of Court Administration that informed judges, clerks and court staff that the infection, hospitalization and death rates have recently spiked and that they have power to enact rules independent of the executive branch. This delineation of executive and judicial power derives from the Texas Constitution, but also the separation of powers in the U.S. Constitution, according to judges, lawyers and law professors interviewed by the Chronicle.

The state courts take their direction on operation orders from the Texas Supreme Court, which allows judges to continue holding hearings remotely and to “modify or suspend any and all deadlines and procedures, and take any other reasonable action to avoid exposing court proceedings and participants to the threat of COVID-19,” according to the Friday memo from court administration in Austin.

[…]

“My understanding is that judges have been free to handle this whatever way they want,” said Menefee, the county attorney. “The Supreme Court has allowed judges to retain their authority to set conditions for their own courts. The Texas Supreme Court has not politicized the issue by issuing a rule.”

Menefee declined to comment on whether the county is contemplating a mask mandate for employees.

This has come up before, with Williamson County implementing a similar mandate last week, following Dallas and Bexar counties. I noted it in passing here, as it happened at the same time as the city of Houston mask mandate for its employees. So far, no pushback from Abbott or Paxton on either of those, and as such it is reasonable to assume this will pass by without fallout as well. Until it does draw a response, I guess – I can’t figure out what those guys are thinking right now. Maybe they’re too busy with all the lawsuits. I expect this will come up at the next Harris County Commissioners Court meeting, and I look forward to seeing what they do given the current set of facts on the ground.

Dallas ISD to require masks

Good for them.

Starting Tuesday, Dallas ISD will require students and teachers to wear masks at its campuses, defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s order that bars districts from issuing mask mandates.

Superintendent Michael Hinojosa announced the change during a Monday morning press conference, saying that it was within his discretion to ensure the health and safety of his employees and the district’s students.

“We’re in a situation that has gotten significantly more urgent,” Hinojosa said.

Dallas is the first district in the state to flout the governor’s order; Houston — the state’s largest district — is considering such a move. Its new superintendent, Millard House II, announced last week that he would bring a mask mandate in front of Houston trustees at their next board meeting, Aug. 12.

School officials say it’s necessary in the face of the highly contagious delta variant. The youngest students remain ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

In a statement, Ben Mackey, Dallas’ board president, said he was fully supportive of Hinojosa’s stance.

“The superintendent is the educational leader and chief executive officer of our school district tasked with the day-to-day operations of the district, which includes implementing safety protocols,” Mackey said. “Requiring masks for staff and students while on district property is a reasonable and necessary safety protocol to protect against the spread of COVID-19 and the new delta variant.

“Towards the end of last school year, we saw very low transmissions rates on campuses, thanks in part to masks being worn consistently by educators and students.”

Abbott’s executive order, issued in May, bars public schools and the Texas Education Agency from issuing any requirements on mask usage. Those who defy Abbott’s order could be subject to a fine of up to $1,000. It’s unclear how such a penalty could be applied to school districts.

Asked about a potential fine, Hinojosa responded: “Who knows?”

“All this is going to play itself out, and we’re not going to be the only ones taking this action,” Hinojosa said.

That certainly seems to be the case, as we have discussed before. HISD will vote on whether or not to follow through on Thursday, while Austin ISD may have made a decision by now as well. There’s also this:

Meanwhile, the Southern Center for Child Advocacy, a nonprofit education group, filed a lawsuit Sunday night in Travis County against Abbott and his executive order prohibiting school districts, governmental bodies or any public or private entity that is receiving or will receive public funds from requiring masks.

In the absence of a statewide mask mandate, the group seeks to give the power to enforce mask wearing back to local school districts, said Hank Bostwick, volunteer center coordinator and lawyer.

[…]

The lawsuit claims that Abbott is overreaching his authority and that his emergency powers should be used to take proactive steps and “not to advance an anti-mask political agenda that has no discernible basis in the data regarding the COVID-19 contagion rate.”

“This is purely political gamesmanship, and has nothing to do with the health and safety of Texas children or their teachers,” Bostwick said.

The lawsuit highlights that people of color are still lagging behind in vaccination rates and getting these families back in schools without proper protection makes them vulnerable to an increased rate of infection.

“The threat to the health and safety of Texas public school students and teachers is imminent and real,” the lawsuit states.

The group also claims that the governor is in violation of Texas education code because children with disabilities “are entitled to learn and interact with their non-disabled or typical peers in a safe and healthy educational environment.” The order not allowing masks means some of these students may be unable to attend school in-person if masking is not required, the lawsuit claims.

I looked around but was unable to find anything else about this lawsuit. From the Trib story, it seems they are making a couple of statutory claims – the Governor does not have the legal authority under the law to forbid school districts (and presumably other local governmental entities) from forbidding them from adopting mask mandates, and the lack of a mask mandate violates state law about providing an equal educational opportunity to all students. This Chron story suggests that these plaintiffs are not alone in that position.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee contends Abbott is misusing the Disaster Act. He cautioned that the governor’s power “is not absolute.”

“While he acknowledges that COVID is a health crisis that needs addressing, he then bars measures that would help mitigate this disaster,” the county attorney said in a statement. “The Disaster Act doesn’t allow him to do that, and local county and city officials should be able to take actions needed to stop the spread of COVID — including issuing a mask mandate.”

It would be fine by me if the Harris County Attorney were to take more direct action on that point. It may well be that this legal argument fails in court, but I see no harm in making that argument, as forcefully as possible. Maybe it’s Greg Abbott who is wrong in his interpretation of the law. Wouldn’t it be nice to know? Only one way to find out.

UPDATE: The Chron writes about the SCCA suit but has no further details.

UPDATE: Austin ISD will require masks as well.

Back to the public input phase for I-45

They hear, but will they listen?

Hemmed between a request for a pause by federal highway officials and an outcry from opponents, planners of a massive rebuild of Interstate 45 in Houston are taking their plans back to the public in what may be a last effort to keep the project on pace.

The Texas Transportation Commission on Wednesday said more public scrutiny is needed of the plan for remaking I-45 north from downtown Houston to Beltway 8.

“Basically, let’s take this project and put it back out for public comment … then we will see where we go from there,” Commission Chairman J. Bruce Bugg said.

Additional public input on the I-45 project — at least the seventh time state officials have asked for comments — will be accepted via the month-long comment process for the Texas Department of Transportation’s 10-year plan, set to start July 7. The decision to seek more public comment, should it lead to the project being delayed or removed from the plan, was viewed as a necessary but unfortunate step by commissioners.

“I think it is very sad that we are at the point we are at with this particular project with regard to the amount of work and the amount of public engagement,” said Commissioner Laura Ryan, who lives in Houston.

Tying the project to the long-range plan is significant because as costs increased to a current estimate of $9 billion for the work, it represents about $1 of every $8 Texas will spend on highways during the next decade.

Officials estimate TxDOT has spent $503 million developing the project to this point. Delaying or significantly redesigning the project could make it the costliest highway hiccup in Texas history, far exceeding the $15 million spent on the Trans-Texas Corridor more than a decade ago before the planned tollway got the heave-ho.

[…]

The Federal Highway Administration in March asked TxDOT to pause development activities on the project. That was clarified in a June 14 letter to include any property acquisition and final design efforts after opponents found people still were receiving property offers.

“We’re frustrated that it’s taken the federal government stepping in to get TxDOT to do the right thing,” said Molly Cook, a Stop TxDOT I-45 organizer.

The right thing, however, is what remains in dispute. Supporters have increased their pressure in recent years, as local elected officials have changed. For more than 15 years to the present, Bugg noted there has been strong regional support for the project because I-45 is a crucial travel corridor for all of southeast Texas. Sixteen times, the Houston-Galveston Area Council, the local regional planning agency made up of various elected and appointed officials, unanimously backed the project.

Many local officials still do, including state Rep. Ed Thompson, R-Pearland, who urged transportation officials meeting Wednesday in Austin to charge ahead.

“I do firmly believe this corridor needs to be completed and if TxDOT can push on that they ought to,” Thompson said.

Citing the importance of I-45 to trucking and evacuation of the Gulf Coast in case of disaster, Thompson said delays in construction come with consequences opponents might not recognize.

“I do understand their concerns, but this is also vital to our entire region,” he said.

See here, here, and here for some background. As the story notes, there are competing interests here, as the city of Houston and Harris County and a bunch of neighborhoods and residents have serious concerns about the many effects of the project, while people who are mostly from far outside of Houston and the affected area want this built yesterday. It’s on TxDOT to balance those interests, and the opponents are not going to meekly roll over. It’s not my problem that TxDOT has spent a ton of money on this project without being able to deliver something that is acceptable to those who will be the most directly affected by it.

Feds tell TxDOT to slow down on I-45

On pause for however long.

In two letters released Wednesday — one to the Texas Department of Transportation and another to Harris County leaders — the Federal Highway Administration said it expected Texas officials to halt work [on I-45], including the purchase of needed property, on the $7 billion-plus rebuild of the freeway until more scrutiny of the project’s effects on low-income and minority communities and its environmental toll can be completed.

“This is an incredibly rare step, but it is a rare set of circumstances,” Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said of the federal decision, noting how TxDOT, in his opinion, cut corners on its environmental assessment.

In a statement, TxDOT spokesman Bob Kaufman said the decision to slow development by FHWA “indefinitely suspends key steps” on a project state and local officials have sought for more than 15 years.

“It’s unfortunate there is an expanded delay on this project, but TxDOT remains fully committed to working with FHWA and local officials on an appropriate path forward ,” Kaufman said. “We know that many in the community are anxious to see this project advance.”

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Menefee said Wednesday the county remains committed to redesigning the proposal.

“We do need and our community deserves an I-45 project, Hidalgo said. “We also need a project that respects the wishes of the community.”

She said TxDOT for the past two years has ignored suggestions from local officials and groups to make the project more transit-focused and displace fewer people.

“You can’t bulldoze your way to a massive infrastructure project without community input,” Hidalgo said. “You cannot bulldoze your way through the Civil Rights Act.”

[…]

The letters reaffirm a request from federal officials in March that work on the controversial project halt until the concerns over equity and the freeway’s design are addressed. Federal officials sent TxDOT the letter after Hidalgo raised objections in May that the highway agency was acquiring property through purchases and eminent domain.

“We share the concerns raised by your recent letter suggesting that TxDOT is not engaging in the pause and may be proceeding with other aspects of the I-45 project,” wrote Achille Alonzi, FHWA’s division director for Texas.

In a letter to TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams, FHWA officials said any pause applies to “right-of-way acquisition, including solicitations, negotiations and eminent domain, and final design activities.”

Further, federal officials said they are reviewing its agreement with TxDOT signed in December 2019, that allowed the state transportation agency to approve its own environmental impact study and move forward on the project. Texas and California have authority to approve their own projects, provided they show they complied with federal law. The review, which critics have called an audit, means federal officials will double-check Texas’ process, which could take months.

See here and here for some background, and here for a copy of the letters. I’ve been wondering lately if we’re going to see the likes of Greg Abbott or Ken Paxton get involved in this. I mean, we have local Democratic officials brazenly telling TxDOT that they can’t do their job and build their highway like they’re supposed to, and surely this cannot stand. I’m a little surprised there hasn’t been some pushback from the “only Republican governance is legitimate” crowd before now. And I hope I’m wrong to be worried about this. We’ll see how this goes. The Press has more.

Harris County Attorney sues Juul

From the inbox:

Christian Menefee

Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee filed a lawsuit Thursday in California state court against e-cigarette company JUUL and several of its executives. Harris County is the first governmental entity in Texas to join the nationwide fight to hold JUUL accountable for the deliberate and deceptive marketing of its highly addictive and destructive products to young people.

“JUUL took its marketing plan from the tobacco industry’s template by creating an image that would lure teenagers. JUUL’s vaping devices are designed to appear like a slick, high-tech gadget that’s attractive to young people. The brand even offers kid-friendly flavors like mango and cool mint,” said Harris County Attorney Menefee. “Cigarette companies were long ago barred from engaging in this type of marketing. Our youth do not deserve to be exploited by a company looking for a lifetime of profits. My office will hold JUUL accountable for its exploitative and negligent practices designed to create the next generation of nicotine users. Lawsuits were a major reason that federal regulators finally reined in cigarette industry, which has caused so much death in this country. I will continue that tradition by making sure JUUL doesn’t get away with the same behavior.”

The lawsuit contends JUUL targeted young people by using social media to showcase the product as a lifestyle brand. The company also adopted a “Make the Switch” campaign to mislead the public that e-cigarettes were benign smoking cessation devices, even though JUUL was never designed to break addictions.

In fact, JUUL’s e-cigarettes were designed to maximize addiction through its patented nicotine delivery mechanism. The CDC’s website warns of nicotine’s harmful effects on the developing brains of adolescents, and how JUUL’s products have also caused lung and cardiovascular injuries. JUUL also took advantage of the loose regulations for e-cigarettes, and made sure its products and advertising do not contain any health risk warnings.

As part of this lawsuit, the Harris County Attorney’s Office is also suing cigarette giant Altria, which owns 35% of JUUL and other companies like Philip Morris. Altria was instrumental in helping JUUL develop its marketing tactics, using its well-developed playbook.

You can see a copy of the lawsuit here – it’s quite long. This was filed in California because that’s where Juul is based, but there’s more to it than that. There’s already a bunch of lawsuits against Juul over its marketing practices in California, and they are basically combined in what is known as a Judicial Council Coordinated Proceeding, their term for when there are multiple similar lawsuits across different judicial districts. This Law.com article, which is mostly paywalled, gives a bit of an outline of what that means. If you look at the Harris County filing, you’ll see that it’s also in this JCCP, in the same court that the Law.com story references.

As I understand it, these cases all have similar claims, some filed by government entities and some by private plaintiffs, and a subset of lawyers from them will lead the litigation. The idea is for Harris County to be among them. Harris is the first county in Texas to file this kind of lawsuit against Juul. The county needed to get permission from the Attorney General’s office to hire outside counsel for the suit, on a contingency basis, which it has received. Other state AGs have taken action themselves, including California and New York. It’s certainly possible that Texas will follow along that path – I’m old enough to remember the massive tobacco lawsuit settlement that Texas and then-AG Dan Morales got in the 90s – but that remains to be seen. If that does happen, the state can file its lawsuit here.

The only news story I found relating to this when I looked was from Click2Houston, which mostly recaps the press release. I’ll be keeping an eye on this.

Harris County sues TxDOT over I-45

This ought to be interesting.

Plans to rebuild Interstate 45 in Houston, which state officials say need to move forward as they work through concerns expressed by critics, took what could be a lengthy detour into federal court Thursday.

In a lawsuit filed in downtown Houston, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee asked the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas to require the Texas Department of Transportation to redo much of the environmental review of the project and delay any further development of the $7 billion rebuild. Menefee cited the obsolete nature of some of the studies used to assess environmental impact and the lack of adequate protections for the residents who will be forced from their homes by the freeway widening.

“The I-45 expansion will displace families in more than 1,000 homes,” Menefee said. “It will also displace businesses, reduce parkland, and significantly impact the quality of life for folks living nearby. We are not taking this lightly, and Harris County residents deserve a fair process that addresses these issues.”

TxDOT officials said they could not comment directly on the lawsuit, but fretted that the decision to go to court stymies efforts to solve the issues that remain.

[…]

Advocates, many of whom in the past five years have grown increasingly frustrated with what they have called TxDOT’s lack of interest in solving some of the problems in favor of moving closer to construction, applauded the county’s lawsuit.

“TxDOT has brought this upon themselves,” said Michael Skelly, an organizer of the Make I-45 Better Coalition. “For many years, organizations and individuals from across the city have been making suggestions to TxDOT that would improve the project, reduce flooding, save taxpayers money, minimize displacement and enhance safety. TxDOT has ignored everyone.

“When TxDOT looks for who to blame, the mirror would be a good place to start,” he said.

The lawsuit, a challenge to the Texas Department of Transportation’s approval of the final environmental review last month, asks that all development of the project halt until the state can better analyze and resolve critics’ concerns. TxDOT officials, under an agreement with the Federal Highway Administration, can self-approve their environmental reviews if they show they properly followed national rules.

See here for the previous update. As the story notes, if this drags on then the I-45 project risks losing the state funding that has been appropriated for it, as TxDOT will put other projects ahead of it in line. The draft environmental impact study is from 2017, so one could certainly argue that things are different now – you know, post-Harvey and all that. I have no idea what to think of the odds on this, but this is the kind of County Attorney that Christian Menefee said he’d be on the campaign trail.

UPDATE: Looks like there’s already a delay in the process, and it has nothing to do with the lawsuit.

We’ll see how long that takes, too.

Harris County considers its ERCOT responses

Maybe ERCOT isn’t right for us.

Commissioner Adrian Garcia

Harris County should consider leaving the state’s main power grid after it failed to prevent widespread blackouts for more than half of Houston-area residents last week, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said Monday.

Garcia has asked the Commissioners Court to explore what authority it has to sever ties with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees the grid that powers all of the state except for El Paso, parts of the Panhandle and a group of counties in East Texas.

“This agenda item is meant to explore how we in Harris County can take ownership of keeping residents safe, something the state has clearly shown it can’t be trusted to do itself,” Garcia said in a statement.

[…]

Liberty County, which borders Harris County to the east, is part of MISO. That grid also suffered outages during the storm, when demand for electricity overwhelmed supply, but they were less severe than those within ERCOT’s system.

What ability, if any, Harris County has to leave ERCOT is unclear. First Assistant County Attorney Jay Aiyer said such a move would almost certainly require approval by the Legislature. As subdivisions of state government, commissioners courts have few independent powers; they cannot even enact ordinances.

Aiyer said Harris County also will examine what actions, if any, the Legislature takes this session to reform ERCOT or the Public Utility Commission to prevent future blackouts.

The odds that the Lege would allow this are basically nil. Even if it made perfect sense on the merits, they’re just not going to allow it to happen. It’s still worth exploring and discussing, because everyone should be talking about potential options to improve our current situation. If nothing else, Harris County can clarify what it wants the Lege to do in response to last week’s fiasco.

The County Attorney has a role to play, too.

Harris County officials are launching an investigation into the events that led up to “Texas’ recent electricity disaster” and will be probing decisions made by the board that operates the state’s power grid, energy providers and the Public Utility Commission.

“Members of our community died in this disaster, and millions of Texans languished without power and water while suffering billions in property damage,” Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said in a Tuesday statement. “Harris County residents deserve to know what happened, who made which decisions, and whether this could have been avoided or mitigated.”

[…]

Menefee will request authorization to take legal action on behalf of Harris County during its Commissioner’s Court meeting Friday. He said he is willing to collaborate with independent state agencies’ investigations as well.

He said operators should have been prepared after 2011’s hard freeze that exposed weaknesses in Texas’ electrical grid system.

“There was nothing unpredictable about this last freeze, and everyone had plenty of notice it was coming,” he said. “But, the people running the grid were woefully unprepared and failed to take immediate action and warn folks of what could happen.”

See above about what everyone, in particular everyone in a position of authority, should be doing. This is what Menefee ran on, and it’s good to see him follow through. Again, what he may actually be able to do, beyond some amicus briefs, is unclear, but we won’t know till he has a good look. He won’t be alone – as the story notes, Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer has called on the Travis County DA to investigate as well. I think civil action is more likely to be the proper course, but hey, all hands on deck. Both items will be discussed by Commissioners Court on Friday.

A different focus on human trafficking

This story might have slipped past you last week.

Christian Menefee

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee — who was elected on a promise to transform the region’s approach to criminal justice — removed 36 suspected sex workers Thursday from a proposed injunction aimed at shutting down street trafficking on the Bissonnet Track, a notorious hub in Southwest Houston.

Menefee said suing these newly identified human trafficking victims was not a solution to curbing illegal activities in the neighborhood, and it only compounded the harm for vulnerable people. His office is also “taking a hard look” at dozens of others still named in the lawsuit, although some suspected pimps — both male and female — will remain for the time being as defendants. None of the removed defendants are believed to be traffickers, he said.

“One thing we do know is targeting sex workers, many of which have been confirmed to be victims of human trafficking, is not a sound approach to solving the issues that are faced on the Bissonnet Track,” he said.

He believes that in the case of a known hub for human trafficking, the government should prioritize ending these crimes while protecting victims.

“This lawsuit did not achieve those goals,” he said. “It proved to be ineffective and the proposed injunction would likely create another layer of harm for victims”

In the 2018 lawsuit, announced to great fanfare by Menefee’s predecessor, Vince Ryan, Mayor Sylvester Turner and Police Chief Art Acevedo at a packed City Hall gathering, officials sought to prevent 86 people accused of engaging in the sex trade from entering an “anti-prostitution zone.”

The sweeping injunction they envisioned never came to fruition. Only a handful of defendants made progress by presenting evidence the county should drop the charges or by agreeing to steer clear of criminal conduct within the few-block circuit.

A copy of the press release from the County Attorney’s office is here. I thought I had written about this at the time, but if I did I wasn’t able to find it. I do know it was an issue in the primary for County Attorney last year, and County Attorney Menefee discussed it in the interview I did with him for that race. As the story notes, groups like the ACLU and experts on human trafficking disagreed with the injunction on the grounds that Menefee cited. In the end, Vince Ryan himself ultimately agreed with that assessment:

Ryan said Thursday he thought the injunction was the right move to address a glaring problem for the local management district his office represented by bringing a lot of attention to it.

“It’s always easy to look backwards and say we coulda, shoulda,” he said. But in time, he came to believe that the real problem was the pimps and it didn’t make sense to punish the people being sold. He said he spoke briefly with Menefee about the policy shift and he supported the new thinking.

“It’s a different time now than it was then,” he said.

Hopefully this step will help refocus the effort and get things moving in a better direction. It’s a thorny problem, with no easy solutions, but at least now we’re more united about what to try.

Precinct analysis: County Attorney 2020 and 2016

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2
Judicial averages
Other cities
District Attorney

The office of County Attorney gets less attention than District Attorney, but as we have seen it’s vitally important. Vince Ryan held the office for three terms before being ousted in the primary by Christian Menefee. Menefee’s overall performance was similar to Ryan’s in 2016 – I’ll get to that in a minute – but as we saw in the previous post that doesn’t mean there can’t be a fair bit of variance. Let’s see where that takes us. Here’s the 2020 breakdown:


Dist     Nation  Menefee  Nation% Menefee%
==========================================
CD02    178,265  154,520   53.57%   46.43%
CD07    149,139  151,213   49.65%   50.35%
CD08     25,809   14,986   63.27%   36.73%
CD09     37,016  119,594   23.64%   76.36%
CD10    102,438   59,410   63.29%   36.71%
CD18     58,121  179,867   24.42%   75.58%
CD22     21,591   20,074   51.82%   48.18%
CD29     48,935  100,744   32.69%   67.31%
CD36     82,457   48,040   63.19%   36.81%
				
SBOE4   104,688  334,552   23.83%   76.17%
SBOE6   380,793  351,322   52.01%   47.99%
SBOE8   218,290  162,575   57.31%   42.69%
				
SD04     55,522   22,733   70.95%   29.05%
SD06     56,939  117,097   32.72%   67.28%
SD07    235,108  171,376   57.84%   42.16%
SD11     76,866   46,710   62.20%   37.80%
SD13     36,807  159,259   18.77%   81.23%
SD15    112,115  194,216   36.60%   63.40%
SD17    115,210  125,384   47.89%   52.11%
SD18     15,204   11,676   56.56%   43.44%
				
HD126    38,751   33,320   53.77%   46.23%
HD127    53,950   35,101   60.58%   39.42%
HD128    48,046   21,796   68.79%   31.21%
HD129    47,571   35,152   57.51%   42.49%
HD130    69,976   32,109   68.55%   31.45%
HD131     9,822   44,446   18.10%   81.90%
HD132    50,540   47,980   51.30%   48.70%
HD133    49,624   36,901   57.35%   42.65%
HD134    46,775   58,410   44.47%   55.53%
HD135    36,489   36,696   49.86%   50.14%
HD137    10,191   20,871   32.81%   67.19%
HD138    31,535   30,924   50.49%   49.51%
HD139    15,325   44,753   25.51%   74.49%
HD140     9,241   21,586   29.98%   70.02%
HD141     6,943	  35,992   16.17%   83.83%
HD142    13,733   41,540   24.85%   75.15%
HD143    11,934   24,039   33.17%   66.83%
HD144    13,762   16,387   45.65%   54.35%
HD145    14,777   26,896   35.46%   64.54%
HD146    11,016   43,379   20.25%   79.75%
HD147    14,738   53,266   21.67%   78.33%
HD148    21,758   36,937   37.07%   62.93%
HD149    21,400   30,636   41.13%   58.87%
HD150    55,873   39,332   58.69%   41.31%
				
CC1      90,530  280,069   24.43%   75.57%
CC2     149,810  143,859   51.01%   48.99%
CC3     224,601  210,646   51.60%   48.40%
CC4     238,830  213,877   52.76%   47.24%
				
JP1      90,035  165,193   35.28%   64.72%
JP2      33,965   48,473   41.20%   58.80%
JP3      51,412   67,741   43.15%   56.85%
JP4     233,642  184,203   55.92%   44.08%
JP5     201,673  214,852   48.42%   51.58%
JP6       7,971   26,993   22.80%   77.20%
JP7      17,824  100,329   15.09%   84.91%
JP8      67,249   40,667   62.32%   37.68%

Menefee scored 54.66% of the vote, better than Ogg by almost a point, and better than Ryan’s 53.72% in 2016 by slightly more. Ryan was consistently an upper echelon performer in his three elections, and that was true in 2016 as well, as only Ogg, Hillary Clinton, and judicial candidate Kelly Johnson had more votes than his 685,075, with those three and Mike Engelhart being the only ones with a larger margin of victory than Ryan’s 95K. Menefee, who collected 848,451 total votes and won by a margin of 145K, was also top tier. His vote total trailed all of the statewide candidates except Chrysta Castaneda and Gisela Triana (one better than Kim Ogg), though his percentage was better than everyone except Joe Biden and Tina Clinton. He outpaced three of the four appellate court candidates (he trailed Veronica Rivas-Molloy) and all but four of the local judicial candidates. His margin of victory was eighth best, behind Biden, Castaneda, two statewide judicials, and three local judicials. (And Ed Gonzalez, but we’ll get to him next.)

Here’s my 2016 precinct analysis post for the County Attorney race, and here’s the relevant data from that year:


Dist    Leitner     Ryan  Leitner%   Ryan%
==========================================
CD02    158,149  113,363    58.25%  41.75%
CD07    135,129  116,091    53.79%  46.21%
CD09     25,714  106,728    19.42%  80.58%
CD10     80,244   36,703    68.62%  31.38%
CD18     46,062  154,354    22.98%  77.02%
CD29     35,312   93,732    27.36%  72.64%
				
SBOE6   331,484  269,022    55.20%  44.80%
				
HD126    34,999   25,571    57.78%  42.22%
HD127    47,719   24,876    65.73%  34.27%
HD128    40,809   17,464    70.03%  29.97%
HD129    41,206   26,677    60.70%  39.30%
HD130    58,268   21,630    72.93%  27.07%
HD131     6,719   39,011    14.69%  85.31%
HD132    37,294   30,571    54.95%  45.05%
HD133    46,509   28,002    62.42%  37.58%
HD134    42,937   44,634    49.03%  50.97%
HD135    31,651   27,468    53.54%  46.46%
HD137     8,661   17,869    32.65%  67.35%
HD138    26,893   23,486    53.38%  46.62%
HD139    11,874   39,721    23.01%  76.99%
HD140     6,316   20,762    23.33%  76.67%
HD141     4,969   32,887    13.13%  86.87%
HD142    10,179   34,249    22.91%  77.09%
HD143     8,745   23,486    27.13%  72.87%
HD144    10,725   16,024    40.09%  59.91%
HD145    10,858   22,921    32.14%  67.86%
HD146     9,532   38,323    19.92%  80.08%
HD147    11,719   45,087    20.63%  79.37%
HD148    17,529   29,206    37.51%  62.49%
HD149    15,405   27,290    36.08%  63.92%
HD150    48,085   26,950    64.08%  35.92%
				
CC1      70,740  240,579    22.72%  77.28%
CC2     123,739  124,368    49.87%  50.13%
CC3     188,415  160,213    54.04%  45.96%
CC4     206,707  158,990    56.52%  43.48%

Kim Ogg did slightly better in the districts in 2016 than Vince Ryan did (most notably in CD02, though Ryan outdid her in HD134), which is what you’d expect given her overall better performance. In a similar fashion, Menefee did slightly better in the districts than Ogg did, as expected given his superior totals. He won CD07 by a thousand more votes than Ogg did, and carried HD135 where Ogg did not. He lost CC2 by two points and 6K votes, while Ogg lost it by four points and 12K votes. His lead in CD29 was 6K smaller than Ryan’s was, while Ogg lost 10K off of her lead in CD29 from 2016.

Overall, Menefee improved on Ryan’s 2016 totals, and made larger gains than Ogg did over her 2016 numbers. Like Ogg, he lost ground in the Latino districts – CD29, HD140, HD143, HD144, CC2 – but not by as much. He had higher vote totals in the Latino State Rep districts, though by small amounts in HDs 140, 143, and 144, and increased the lead over what Ryan had achieved in HDs 145 and 148. Like Ogg, he also lost ground in HD149, going from a 12K lead to a 9K lead, and in HD128, going from a 23K deficit to a 27K deficit (Ogg went from down 21K to down 27K). He gained ground in HD127 (from down 23K to down 19K; Ogg stayed roughly the same) and lost only about a thousand net votes in HD130 as Ogg went from down 34K to down 39K. He posted strong gains in HD126 (down 9K to down 5K), HD133 (down 18K to down 13K), and HD150 (down 21K to down 16K).

On the whole, a very strong initial performance by Menefee. As I said, County Attorney is generally a lower-profile job than District Attorney and Sheriff, but between bail reform, the multiple election lawsuits, and the forthcoming Republican legislative assault on local control, there should be many chances for Menefee to make statements about what he does and can do. He’ll have a solid chance to build on what he did this year when he’s next up for election.

Commissioners Court rejects Paxton allegation about Elections Administrator

Straight to the point.

Best mugshot ever

The Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday rejected an opinion from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in which he said they illegally created an independent elections office and hired an administrator.

The move invites a potential lawsuit from the attorney general, which Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said he was confident the county would win.

“This is another example of (Attorney) General Paxton using his office to attack the voting rights of Texans,” Ellis said.

He noted that Paxton sued to prevent counties from installing more than one drop box for mail-in ballots during this fall’s general election. The attorney general also convinced the Texas Supreme Court to block Harris County’s plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.5 million registered voters. Paxton also had issued an opinion suggesting the county’s drive-thru voting arrangements violated the state election code.

[…]

In a written response to Paxton Tuesday, [County Attorney Vince] Ryan acknowledged that Harris County had not promptly informed the state of those actions. He said, however, that Texas law says the delays do not change their validity.

Harris County joined more than 100 other Texas counties in creating an independent elections office, which combines the election management role of the county clerk with the voter registration duties of the tax assessor-collector.

The three Democrats on Commissioners Court voted in favor of the change, arguing it is more efficient. The two Republicans were opposed, saying it created an administrator who is unaccountable to voters.

The court was similarly divided in Tuesday afternoon’s discussion. Democratic County Judge Lina Hidalgo dismissed Paxton’s threat as a distraction and said Longoria must be able to do her job.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, a Republican, said Ellis’s criticism of Paxton was unfounded. The attorney general has a duty to ensure the law is followed, he said.

“When Paxton says we didn’t follow the rules, I don’t think there is some evil intent,” Cagle said.

See here for the background, and let’s put aside for the moment the laughable idea that Ken Paxton has any moral authority when it comes to telling people to obey the rules. I dismissed Paxton’s threats as mere bluster, but I’m an Internet smartass. There are no real consequences when I’m wrong about something. I certainly hope Vince Ryan is right about this – and as a side matter, I hope incoming County Attorney Christian Menefee was consulted and is on board with this, because it will be his mess to clean up if Ryan and the rest of us are wrong. I guess we’ll find out soon enough if we’re about to be dragged into a prolonged court battle, or if this was indeed just hot air. The Texas Signal and the Chron’s Erica Greider have more.

Menefee and Fagan

I’m delighted about the election of Christian Menefee as Harris County Attorney, and look forward to his inauguration.

Christian Menefee

Christian Menefee, the youngest and first African-American elected Harris County attorney Tuesday evening, took little time to celebrate his historic victory.

By 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, he was meeting with the office’s first assistant, beginning the transition process so he can hit the ground running in January. During his campaign, the 32-year-old litigator had pitched himself as a progressive advocate eager to work on issues, including bail reform.

“I ran for this office because I saw that it has a real opportunity to impact life for everyday people,” Menefee said Wednesday. “In every issue, the way I will approach it is, ‘how does this affect the collective good of the people of Harris County?’”

With the full, unofficial results tallied, Menefee bested Republican John Nation by more than 141,000 votes. He defeated three-term incumbent Vince Ryan in the March primary.

Menefee, who has never held public office, told the Houston Chronicle editorial board he wants to aggressively pursue polluters and also be a strong advocate of local control. Harris and other large urban counties in the state, which are run by Democrats, have clashed repeatedly in recent years with Republican state leaders on issues such as the COVID-19 response, eviction policies and election procedures.

The County Attorney’s Office essentially serves as the in-house law firm for Harris County, representing the interests of residents and public officials in lawsuits. Menefee said he wants to immediately fill 15 vacancies among the 120 staff attorney corps, and look to create additional positions in the future.

He said he also wants to help attorneys develop expertise in certain areas, such as election law, so the county can rely less on outside lawyers when those issues arise.

“I want to get the office constituted in a way that best utilizes our resources and puts us in the position to aggressively fight for the things I want to fight for,” Menefee said.

As I have said repeatedly, I thought Vince Ryan was an exemplary County Attorney, and I salute him for his three successful terms in office. But it was clear to me that Menefee had the better vision for the office, and the right attitude to take in this time of increasing hostility from state Republicans towards the values that we vote for in Harris County. He’s the right person for the job, and I can’t wait to see what he does with it.

Fort Bend is now almost all Democratic at the countywide level (County Clerk, Treasurer, and a couple of County Courts at Law, all unopposed in 2018, are the exceptions), and they made some history with their new Sheriff.

Democrat Eric Fagan made history Tuesday night as Fort Bend County voters elected him to be the county’s first Black sheriff since Reconstruction.

The victory of Fagan, a retired Houston police officer, comes two years after a blue wave brought two other people of color to top jobs in the highly diverse county: Brian Middleton was elected the county’s first Black district attorney, and KP George became its first Indian-American judge.

“Fort Bend is changing. It’s the most diverse county, in not just the state, but in the nation,” Fagan, 60, said of the changing politics. “Its leadership should reflect it.”

Fagan received 53 percent against Nehls, the Precinct 4 constable seeking to succeed his twin brother Troy as sheriff. In a win for Republicans, Troy Nehls was elected to an open congressional seat on Tuesday.

Fagan ran on a progressive platform — promising body cameras for sheriff’s deputies, improved mental health training and better community policing.

County voters hadn’t elected a black sheriff since Reconstruction. In 1869, Walter Moses Burton, a freed slave, was elected sheriff during a brief period of biracial county government following the Civil War. Burton taught himself to read and write and later was elected state senator. In that role, he pushed through a bill that helped establish the Prairie View Normal School, now Prairie View A&M University, which is Fagan’s alma mater.

“He started my school that I graduated from, Prairie View A&M University,” said Fagan. “It’s very historic and very great. It shows that Fort Bend County is growing and they’re embracing the diversity.”

Fagan previously worked for 31 years in the Houston Police Department, including on Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s security detail.

Fagan has listed a number of goals, including modifying the county’s 911 dispatch system to allow the closest officer to respond to calls; strengthening relations between the sheriff’s office and the community by creating a citizens review board to review questionable actions; and using mediation more to resolve disputes.

Congratulations and best of luck to you, Sheriff-elect Eric Fagan.

Endorsement watch: Menefee and more

The Chron endorses Christian Menefee for Harris County Attorney.

Christian Menefee

Christian Menefee was still celebrating his victory in the Democratic primary over longtime incumbent Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan when the coronavirus pandemic changed everything. Lockdowns and social distancing left the 32-year-old civil litigation attorney with a lot of time on his hands.

He used those spare hours well. During the last several months, Menefee told the editorial board, he has researched the inner workings of the department he hopes to run. He studied the office’s organizational charts. He talked to more than 30 current employees. He reached out to the Dallas County district attorney and the Travis County attorney.

That helped give him a solid understanding of the office he seeks and what improvements need to be made, Menefee said.

“You can’t just come in with ideas,” said Menefee, a Houston native who is a litigator with Kirkland & Ellis. “You need to come in with stuff that you know is going to work.”

That kind of energy, attention to detail and determination to make the county attorney office as effective as possible earn Menefee our endorsement. We also recommended him in the primary, noting his commitment to expanding the office’s environmental law section, which currently has four full-time lawyers.

In addition to the bread-and-butter work of representing elected officials, local entities and county employees, Menefee said he wants the office to bring more impact litigation to “hold polluters accountable.”

Menefee also wants the office to be a strong advocate for local control — no small feat, given the control officials in Austin have sought in recent years, including Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s recent challenges to the county on vote-by-mail applications and eviction policies.

If you listen to the interview I did with Menefee for the primary, you will definitely hear all of these themes from him. He’s got a lot of potential, and I expect big things.

Next, the Chron heads a bit north to endorse Hank Gilbert in CD01 over the hottest of messes that is Louie Gohmert.

Hank Gilbert

Ever since voters in Texas’ 1st Congressional District sent U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert to Congress in 2004 by a landslide, it’s been an open question as to how extreme, how divisive and how — there’s no other way to put it — how batty their congressman can get before he’s recalled.

If his electoral successes are any guide, Gohmert is in no danger of being held accountable for his antics, which include most recently refusing to wear a mask unless he got COVID-19 — which he promptly did. His positive diagnosis drew a worried rebuke from his own daughter on Twitter: “My father ignored medical expertise and now he has Covid,” she wrote.

Still, as congressman, Gohmert has never polled less than 68 percent. Time and again, despite a mountain of cringe-worthy examples, Gohmert has emerged stronger after Election Day.

This year, his opponent swears it will be different. “He’s never had a real challenger,” says Democrat Hank Gilbert, 60, a former rancher, high school ag teacher and two-time candidate for Texas agriculture commissioner.

We hope he’s right. The district deserves better than what it’s had these past 16 years. Heck, Congress deserves better.

Here’s my interview with Hank, who is a mensch through and through. No question, Congress and the country would be a much better place with Hank subbing in for Gohmert, but that’s on the voters, and this is a tough district. If you know someone who lives in that district, make sure they know about Hank.

Finally, the Chron endorses incumbent Rep. Mike McCaul for re-election, and while the have good things to say about Mike Siegel, they argue that “trading an accomplished and pragmatic congressman would not serve the district well”. Whatevs.

July 2020 campaign finance reports: Harris County

You can always count on January and July for campaign finance reports. This roundup is going to be a little funky, because all of the candidates filed eight-day reports for the March primary, and a few also filed 30-day and eight-day reports for the July runoff. I’ll note those folks, because it means that some of the comparisons are not really apples-to-apples. But this is what we have. The July 2019 reports are here, and the January 2020 reports are here.

Kim Ogg, District Attorney
Mary Nan Huffman, District Attorney

Ed Gonzalez, Sheriff
Joe Danna, Sheriff

Christian Menefee, Harris County Attorney
John Nation, Harris County Attorney

Ann Harris Bennett, Tax Assessor
Chris Daniel (SPAC), Tax Assessor

Rodney Ellis, County Commissioner, Precinct 1

Michael Moore, County Commissioner, Precinct 3
Tom Ramsey, County Commissioner, Precinct 3


Candidate     Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
===================================================
Ogg           64,109   223,775   68,489      29,698
Huffman       30,455    58,215        0      11,385

Gonzalez      37,352    28,320        0      73,959
Danna         56,446    26,240        0       8,490

Menefee       24,236    32,768        0      11,680
Nation             0         0        0           0

Bennett       
Daniel         1,302        51   25,000       1,705

Ellis         53,835   575,804        0   3,029,506

Moore        156,790   245,110        0      96,832
Ramsey       346,150    49,829        0     308,942

Both Ogg ($385K) and Gonzales ($317K) had plenty of cash on hand as of January, but they both spent a bunch of money in their contested primaries; Ogg needed to do so more than Gonzalez took the wise approach of not taking his little-known opponents lightly. I expect they’ll raise enough to run their campaigns, but as they’ll benefit from the Democratic nature of the county, I wouldn’t necessarily expect them to be big moneybags. I haven’t seen much of a campaign from Huffman as yet, and Joe Danna is a perennial candidate who gets most of his contributions as in-kind. What I’m saying is, don’t expect a whole lot from these races.

The same is largely true for the County Attorney and Tax Assessor races. Christian Menefeee had a decent amount raised for his January report, so he’ll probably take in a few bucks. I know absolutely nothing about his opponent, who doesn’t appear to be doing much. I don’t know why Ann Harris Bennett hasn’t filed a report yet, but he’s never been a big fundraiser. Chris Daniel has always used that PAC for his campaigns, and he had a few bucks in it as District Clerk but not that much.

Rodney Ellis brought a lot of money with him from his time as State Senator when he moved to the County Commissioner spot, and he will continue to raise and spend a significant amount. If previous patterns hold, he’ll put some money towards a coordinated campaign, and support some other Dems running for office directly. The race that will see the most money is the Commissioner race in Precinct 3. Michael Moore was in the Dem primary runoff, and the report you see is from July 6, which is to say it’s his eight-day report. That means the money raised and spent is from a 22-day period, which should give a bit of perspective. Both he and Tom Ramsey will have all the resources they need.

We need to talk about those lines

I wish we could talk about something else, but we have to do this.

Hervis Rogers, the hero we don’t deserve

Dozens of Democratic voters were still waiting to cast ballots at midnight in Houston, turning Super Tuesday into a painful slog for some citizens amid questions about how the County Clerk’s office had allocated its voting machines across the county.

Janet Gonzalez left work early and at 5:30 p.m. checked a website the clerk’s office runs to show wait times at polling places. It seemed Texas Southern University had a short wait, but when she arrived she found a massive line. She waited an hour outside and three more inside before she finally cast her ballot.

Officials with the clerk’s office acknowledged the accuracy of the wait-times website is reliant on election workers manually updating the status of their polling places.

Some people in line gave up and walked away, Gonzalez said. Others briefly sought refuge on a scattering of chairs before giving them up to others as the line inched forward.

[…]

Democratic County Clerk Diane Trautman and her staff said each of the county’s 401 polling places started with between 16 and 48 machines, depending on anticipated turnout, but at each location the machines were divided equally between the Democrat and Republican primaries, regardless of whether the location heavily favored one party or the other.

“If we had given one five and one 10, and that other one had a line, they would say, ‘You slighted us,’” Trautman said late Tuesday. “So we wanted to be fair and equal and start at the same amount. Through the day, we have been sending out additional machines to the Democratic judges to the extent that we ran out.”

During Election Day the clerk’s office dispatched 68 extra voting machines to Democratic polls, including 14 to TSU, in response to election judges’ requests. Trautman added that some of the machines assigned to TSU to start the day had to be replaced after malfunctioning.

Trautman said a joint primary — which would have allowed both parties’ ballots to be loaded on each voting machine, rather than separating the equipment by party — would have reduced the lines, but the GOP rejected the idea.

[…]

County Democratic Party chair Lillie Schechter said her staff did not grasp until Tuesday that when Trautman spoke of allocating the machines “equitably” she meant dividing them equally at each polling site, rather than giving each party the same number of machines but concentrating most of them in areas known to be strongholds of each party.

“We’re thrilled that turnout has been so high today and that’s been super exciting, but I think the story with the voting machines goes a step farther back than just how the voting machines are allocated,” she said. “The machines are part of the problem but not the whole problem.”

In order to preserve citizens’ ability to vote at any polling place on Election Day – a new policy under Trautman, and one GOP officials have opposed – Schechter said the parties needed to agree on shared polling locations. That gave Republicans more power in the negotiation, she said, and resulted in more than 60 percent of Tuesday’s polling sites being located in Republican-held county commissioner precincts, with less than 40 percent in commissioner precincts held by Democrats.

It’s kind of amazing that more people didn’t just give up and walk away after hours of waiting on line. You think you’re committed to American ideals and democracy, tell that to Hervis Rogers and the other people who waited as long as they did to exercise their right to vote. Every last one of them deserves our thanks, and a hell of a lot better from the experience next time.

This story expands a bit on that last paragraph above.

The clerk’s office dispatched additional machines to some poll sites, located in heavily black and Hispanic neighborhoods including Third Ward, Acres Homes and Gulfgate. They provided only partial relief.

At Texas Southern University, where just 48 Republicans voted early, the final Democratic voter cast his ballot after 1 a.m. after waiting in line for more than six hours.

Democratic election workers at a Sunnyside voting center reported functioning machines were broken in a successful ruse to get the clerk’s office to send more, a spokeswoman for Trautman said.

The sheer expanse of Harris County’s 1,777 square miles and most-in-Texas 2.3 million registered voters long has posed problems for county clerks in primary and general elections. When Democratic precincts in past elections had extremely long lines, some in the party blamed the Republican county clerk.

Problems persisted in Tuesday’s primary, however, even though Democrats have controlled every countywide post since last year.

Yes, and many people noticed, though a lot of blame still accrued to Republicans thanks to their long and dedicated record of vote suppression. But we don’t have Stan Stanart to kick around any more, and the spotlight is on us to fix this, not just for next time but on a more permanent basis.

I mean, I can accept that the Harris County GOP’s refusal to go along with a joint primary and the certainty that they’d pitch a fit if Dems got more voting machines than they did even though it was a virtual certainty that Dems would be the larger part of the Tuesday electorate was a problem. But we elected Diane Trautman to solve problems like that, and on Tuesday she didn’t. The onus is squarely on her to be completely transparent about what happened and why it happened, and to come up with a plan to ensure it never happens again. That doesn’t mean just brainstorming with her staff. That means concrete action involving all of the stakeholders – people from the community, election law experts, Commissioner Ellis and Garcia’s offices, County Attorney Vince Ryan and 2020 nominee Christian Menefee, grassroots organizations like TOP and the Texas Civil Rights Project and whoever else, and the HCDP since they have as big a stake in this as anyone. Convene a commission, get everyone’s input on what they saw and what they experienced and what they know and what they need, and come up with a plan for action.

Among other things, that means having much better communications, both before the election so people have a better idea of what polling places are open and what ones aren’t – yes, this is on the website, but clearly more than that needs to be done – and on Election Day, when rapid response may be needed to deal with unexpected problems. Why weren’t there more voting machines available on Tuesday, and why wasn’t there a way to get them to the places with the longest lines in a timely manner? Let the Republicans whine about that while it’s happening, at that point no one would care. Stuff happens, and anyone can guess wrong about what Election Day turnout might look like. But once that has happened, don’t just sit there, DO SOMETHING about it. It really shouldn’t have to take election clerks pretending that machines had malfunctioned to get some relief.

Also, as useful as the voting centers concept is, we need to recognize that for folks with mobility issues, having places they can walk to really makes a difference. Add Metro and transit advocacy folks like LINK Houston to that list of commission attendees, because the mobility of the people in a given neighborhood needs to be weighed into decisions about which Election Day sites are open and which are consolidated in the same way that relative turnout is. If a significant segment of a given population simply can’t drive to another neighborhood to vote, then all the voting centers in the world don’t matter.

I get that in November we’ll have all locations open, and there won’t be any squabble over who gets which voting machines. That will help. But in November, no matter how heavy early voting will be, we’re going to get a lot more people going to the polls on Election Day than the 260K or so that turned out this Tuesday. Voter registration is up, turnout is up, and we need to be much better prepared for it. Diane Trautman, please please please treat this like the emergency that it is. And Rodney Ellis, Adrian Garcia, and Lina Hidalgo, if that means throwing some money at the problem, then by God do that. We didn’t elect you all to have the same old problems with voting that we had before. The world is watching, and we’ve already made a lousy first impression. If that doesn’t hurt your pride and make you burn to fix it, I don’t know what would.

(My thanks to nonsequiteuse and Melissa Noriega for some of the ideas in this post. I only borrow from the best.)

UPDATE: Naturally, after I finished drafting this piece, out comes this deeper dive from the Trib. Let me just highlight a bit of it:

Months before, the Democratic and Republican county parties had been unable to agree to hold a joint primary, which would have allowed voters to share machines preloaded with ballots for both parties.

The Harris County Democratic Party had agreed to the setup, but the Harris County GOP refused, citing in part the long lines Republican voters would have to wait through amid increased turnout for the pitched Democratic presidential primary.

“We wanted them to do a joint primary where you would just have one line and voters could use all the machines, but they couldn’t agree on that,” said Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, who was elected to her post in 2018.

Without a resolution, Trautman chose to allocate an equal number of machines for both primaries at each polling site “because we didn’t want to slight anyone,” particularly as Harris moved to countywide voting to free voters from precinct-specific voting. But the move essentially halved the number of voting machines available to Democratic voters on a busy election day. That meant Republican voting quickly wrapped up across the county while Democratic lines made for extra hours of voting at multiple polling places.

In a Wednesday press conference, Paul Simpson, the chair of the Harris County GOP, reiterated that the party was adamantly opposed to joint primaries and sought to preempt any blame for long Democratic lines. To Simpson, Trautman misfired by pursuing a 50/50 split of voting machines across the board instead of using past turnout data to adjust allocations, and he pointed to the party’s recommendation to give Republicans only four machines at Texas Southern University.

“The county clerk refused and failed to follow our suggestion to avoid the lines that we predicted last summer were going to happen,” Simpson said.

(Previous voting patterns weren’t available for Texas Southern University, which was only added as polling place under Trautman.)

But Lillie Schechter, the chairwoman of the Harris County Democratic Party, said the excessive wait times Democrats faced Tuesday were part of a broader electoral divide in a county that has turned reliably blue in recent years. That change in power has come with voting initiatives that local Republicans have not warmed up to, including a move to countywide voting that allows voters to cast ballots at any polling place in the county on election day.

To keep countywide voting for the primary election, the political parties needed to agree on the distribution of shared polling places. But the map the GOP pushed for on Super Tuesday established more voting centers in the two county commissioner precincts represented by Republicans, Schechter said.

“If you look at the story to say let’s blame the county clerk’s office, you’re missing the big picture here,” Schechter said.

In the aftermath of the wait time debacle, Trautman acknowledged that Democratic voting on Super Tuesday was bogged down by both technical and training issues. The county’s voting machines — the oldest in use among the state’s biggest counties — went down at different points in the night. Election workers weren’t always able to make the adjustments to bring them back into order. Both machines and election workers were “stretched to the max” during the late-night voting slog, she said.

At midnight — seven hours after polls closed — voting was again interrupted at the two polling places that were still running, including the Texas Southern University site, when the tablets used to check in voters automatically timed out and had to be rebooted.

Later on Wednesday, Trautman signaled she was assessing what the county needed to fix moving forward — a better method for rerouting voters to nearby voting sites with shorter lines, a wait time reporting system that’s not dependent on busy election workers, pushing for more early voting and, perhaps most notably, purchasing additional equipment for the November election.

“We will work to improve to make things better,” Trautman said.

It’s the right attitude and I’m glad to see it. The Clerk’s office is also in the process of scoping out new voting machines, which can’t come soon enough but which will introduce new challenges, in terms of adapting to the new technology and educating voters on how to use it. All this is a good start, and now I want to see a whole lot of follow-through.

2020 primary results: Harris County

Let’s start with this.

Long lines combined with a lack of voting machines turned into frustration for voters at several election sites in Harris County on Super Tuesday.

Margaret Hollie arrived at the Multi Service Center on Griggs Road at 11 a.m. She finished just after 2:45 p.m.

“It was horrible,” she said. “The worst since I’ve been voting. And I’ve been voting for 60 years.”

She decided to stick around and vote at the location in the city’s South Union area. Others did not, opting to find polling sites that were less busy. Under recent changes implemented by county leaders, voters can now cast their ballot at any precinct.

In Kashmere Gardens, at another Multi Service Center, the line of voters stretched from the entrance of the voting room to the exit of the facility.

Bettie Adami was one of about 100 people in the line about 4 p.m. Healthcare, higher paying jobs and raising the minimum wage top the list of her concerns this election season.

She isn’t letting the line prevent her from voting. “I’ll stand as long as I have to to cast my vote,” she said.

[…]

The county’s political parties are in charge of deciding which polling places will be open for primary elections, said [Rosio Torres, a spokesperson for the Harris County] Clerk’s office.

DJ Ybarra, Executive Director of the Harris County Democratic Party , said the decision was made to not include some polling locations in negotiations with Republicans to keep countywide voting in the primary. The parties agreed on the final map of polling locations in January, said Ybarra.

“In that negotiation, we had to come up with what locations we wanted,” said Ybarra. “We wish we could have had more locations, but we had to negotiate and we had to keep countywide voting.

“In the future, we’re going to try our best to get all our polling locations we want earlier in the process, so we’re not put in a position where we don’t have all the locations we want,” Ybarra said.

To sum that up in a couple of tweets:

In other words, there were about twice as many Dems voting yesterday as there were Republicans, but there were an equal number of Dem and Rep voting machines, which is the way it works for separate primaries. Had this been a joint primary as Trautman’s office originally proposed and which the HCDP accepted, each voting machine at each site could have been used for either primary. Oh well.

I had asked if the judicial races were basically random in a high-turnout election like this. The answer is No, because in every single judicial election where there was a male candidate and a female candidate, the female candidate won, often by a large margin. That means the end for several incumbents, including Larry Weiman, Darryl Moore, Randy Roll, Steven Kirkland, and George Powell, some of which I mourn more than others. Alex Smoots-Thomas, who had a male challenger and a female challenger, trails Cheryl Elliott Thornton going into a runoff. I saw a lot of mourning on Twitter last night of Elizabeth Warren’s underperformance and the seeming reluctance many people had to vote for a woman for President. Well, at least in Harris County, many many people were happy to vote for women for judge.

Three of the four countywide incumbents were headed to victory. In order of vote share, they are Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, Tax Assessor Ann Harris Bennett, and DA Kim Ogg. In the County Attorney race, challenger Christian Menefee was just above fifty percent, and thus on his way to defeating three-term incumbent Vince Ryan without a runoff. I thought Menefee would do well, but that was a very strong performance. Even if I have to correct this today and say that he fell just short of a clear majority, it’s still quite impressive.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis easily won, with over 70%. Michael Moore and Diana Martinez Alexander were neck and neck in Precinct 3, with Kristi Thibaut a few points behind in third place.

Unfortunately, as I write this, Democrats were on their way towards an own goal in HCDE Position 7, At Large. Andrea Duhon, who is already on the Board now, was leading with just over 50%. If that holds, she’ll have to withdraw and the Republican – none other than Don Freaking Sumners – will be elected in November. If we’re lucky, by the time all the votes have been counted, she’ll drop below fifty percent and will be able to withdraw from the runoff, thus allowing David Brown, currently in second place, to be the nominee. If not, this was the single lousiest result of the day.

Got a lot of other ground to cover, so let’s move on. I’ll circle back to some other county stuff tomorrow.

Endorsement watch: For Menefee

We have our first major endorsement against an incumbent as the Chron recommends Christian Menefee for County Attorney over Vince Ryan.

Christian Menefee

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan’s decision to spend millions of dollars and waste precious legal resources to prolong the defense of an unconstitutional bail system raises serious questions about his judgment.

That Ryan still contends that the bail process was constitutional demands change.

This is a large part of why we recommend civil litigation attorney Christian Menefee in the March 3 Democratic primary for the job Ryan has held since 2008.

We were also impressed by promises made by Menefee, 31, to bring added energy and fresh perspective to the part of the job that goes beyond serving as a lawyer to county officials and judges. The county attorney also is responsible for using civil enforcement to protect neighborhoods, clean up the environment and shut down illegal enterprises.

“We need a relentless advocate who’s going to fight for the people of Harris County, all the people,” Menefee said in an interview with the Chronicle Editorial Board.

[…]

“I have great respect for Judge Rosenthal, but her finding of an unconstitutional system was, quite frankly, not something we agreed with,” Ryan told the Editorial Board, a stand that puts him in conflict with the courts and a growing body of legal reformers locally and across the country.

My interview with Vince Ryan is here, my interview with Christian Menefee is here, and my interview with Ben Rose is here. The Chron did endorse some challengers in judicial races, but this is a more significant decision. I’ve been saying for a long time that the bail lawsuit was going to be the main factor in this race, and however you feel about Vince Ryan – as I have said, I think he has been a pretty darned good County Attorney overall – Ryan has had to answer for this, and his answers have not been great. I don’t understand why the Chron didn’t stick to their position of strong support for bail reform in the primary between Judge George Powell and challenger Natalia Cornelio, but they are being consistent here. Again, I don’t know what the effect of the expected high turnout for the primary will be. I do expect that this issue has resonated with the Democratic electorate, but I don’t know how deep that goes.

January 2020 campaign finance reports: Harris County

As you know, New Year’s Day brings a new round of campaign finance reports, for all levels of government. I’m going to be working my way through these as I can, because there’s lots to be learned about the candidates and the status of the races from these reports, even if all we do is look at the topline numbers. Today we start with Harris County races, as there’s a lot of action and primary intrigue. With the Presidential primary and of course the entire Trump demon circus dominating the news, it can be hard to tell where the buzz is in these races, if any buzz exists. The July 2019 reports, with a much smaller field of candidates, is here.

Kim Ogg, District Attorney
Carvana Cloud, District Attorney
Audia Jones, District Attorney
Curtis Todd Overstreet, District Attorney

Lori DeAngelo, District Attorney
Mary Nan Huffman, District Attorney
Lloyd Oliver, District Attorney

Ed Gonzalez, Sheriff
Jerome Moore, Sheriff
Harry Zamora, Sheriff

Joe Danna, Sheriff
Paul Day, Sheriff

Vince Ryan, County Attorney
Christian Menefee, Harris County Attorney
Ben Rose, Harris County Attorney

John Nation, County Attorney

Ann Harris Bennett, Tax Assessor
Jolanda Jones, Tax Assessor
Jack Terence, Tax Assessor

Chris Daniel (SPAC), Tax Assessor

Rodney Ellis, County Commissioner, Precinct 1
Maria Jackson, County Commissioner, Precinct 1

Diana Alexander, County Commissioner, Precinct 3
Erik Hassan, County Commissioner, Precinct 3
Michael Moore, County Commissioner, Precinct 3
Morris Overstreet, County Commissioner, Precinct 3
Kristi Thibaut, County Commissioner, Precinct 3

Tom Ramsey, County Commissioner, Precinct 3
Susan Sample, County Commissioner, Precinct 3
Brenda Stardig (SPAC), County Commissioner, Precinct 3


Candidate     Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
===================================================
Ogg          106,572    83,276   68,489     385,908
Cloud         33,881    17,382        0      16,889
Jones         49,186    29,177        0      29,973
Overstreet         0     1,250        0           0

DeAngelo         500     2,012        0         500
Hoffman            0    41,089        0           0
Oliver             0         0        0           0

Gonzalez      95,636    47,317        0     317,264
Moore         28,595    15,896        0      12,698
Zamora         4,500    18,177        0           0

Danna         78,820    39,274    7,000       9,857
Day                0         0        0           0

Ryan          33,655    18,779        0     101,039
Menefee      135,579    41,249        0     128,547
Rose          89,476    80,932   20,000      53,341

Nation             0     1,369        0           0

Bennett       20,965     8,734        0      39,845
Jones         16,320     1,250        0      16,320
Terence        1,000     1,400        0           0

Daniel            35         1        0         454

Ellis        122,631   396,998        0   3,881,740
Jackson      110,230    71,241    8,000      19,353

Alexander
Hassan          750      4,442        0           0
Moore       209,391     13,248        0     199,052
Overstreet   17,950      2,025        0      15,925
Thibaut      51,180      4,536        0      45,761

Ramsey      154,315     24,281        0     126,619
Sample       26,624      1,828        0      26,620
Stardig      43,700     39,985        0      75,930

I guess I expected more from the District Attorney race. Audia Jones and Carvana Cloud have raised a few bucks, but nothing yet that would lead me to believe they will be able to effectively communicate with a primary electorate that could well be over 500,000 voters. Kim Ogg is completing her first term, but this will be the third time she’s been on the ballot – there was an election for DA in 2014 as well, following the death of Mike Anderson and the appointment of his widow, Devon Anderson, to succeed him. Neither of those primaries had a lot of voters, but a lot of the folks voting this March will have done so in one or both of the past Novembers, and that’s a boost for Ogg. On the Republican side, you can insert a shrug emoji here. I assume whoever wins that nomination will eventually be able to convince people to give them money. If you’re wondering how Mary Nan Hoffman can spend $41K without raising anything, the answer is that she spent that from personal funds.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez is the only incumbent here without a serious primary challenger. I’d never advise anyone to coast in an election where they have an opponent, but he doesn’t need to have the pedal to the metal. More than half of the amount Joe Danna raised was in kind, so don’t spend too much time thinking about that.

Both County Attorney challengers have done well, though again the question will be “is it enough?” I actually got a robopoll call the other day for the County Attorney race, but I didn’t stay on the line till the end – they started asking “if you knew this about this candidate” questions, and since they didn’t say up front how long the survey might take, I didn’t want to stick it out. As above, the main challenge for Christian Menefee and Ben Rose is that Vince Ryan has been on the ballot multiple times, going back to 2008. The voters know who he is, or at least more of them know who he is than they do who the other candidates in that race are. That’s the hill they have to climb.

The one challenger to an incumbent who can claim a name ID advantage is Jolanda Jones, who is surely as well known as anyone on this ballot. That has its pros and cons in her case, but at least the voters deciding between her and Ann Harris Bennett won’t be guessing about who their choices are.

I didn’t mention the Republicans running for County Attorney or Tax Assessor for obvious reasons. Chris Daniel could be a low-key favorite to surpass the partisan baseline in his race in November, but after 2016 and 2018, he’ll need a lot more than that.

In the Commissioners Court races, Maria Jackson has raised a decent amount of money, but she’s never going to be on anything close to even footing there. Precinct 1 is one-fourth of the county, but a much bigger share of the Democratic primary electorate. In 2008, there were 143K votes in Precinct 1 out of 411K overall or 35%. In 2012, it was 39K out of 76K, or 51%, and in 2016 it was 89K out of 227K, or 39%. My guess is that in a 500K primary, Precinct 1 will have between 150K and 200K voters. Think of it in those terms when you think about how much money each candidate has to spend so they can communicate with those voters.

In Precinct 3, Michael Moore and Tom Ramsey stand out in each of their races so far. For what it’s worth, the three Dems have raised more (270K to 224K) than the three Republicans so far. I don’t think any of that matters right now. Steve Radack still has his campaign money, and I’d bet he spends quite a bit of it to help the Republican nominee hold this seat.

All right, that’s it for now. I’ll have state offices next, and will do Congress and US Senate later since those totals aren’t reliably available till the first of the next month. Later I’ll go back and fill in the city numbers, and maybe look at HISD and HCC as well. Let me know what you think.

Interview with Christian Menefee

Christian Menefee

Our third candidate in my series of interviews for Harris County Attorney is Christian Menefee, who was the first candidate to declare for the race. A native Houstonian, Menefee is a former intern in the Harris County Public Defender’s office, and now works as a litigator with Kirkland & Ellis. He has worked with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Texas Appleseed, he has served on the Houston Independent Police Advisory Board, and he is a past President of the Houston Black American Democrats club. Here’s the interview:

    PREVIOUSLY:

Elisa Cardnell – CD02
Travis Olsen – CD02

Michelle Palmer – SBOE6
Kimberly McLeod – SBOE6
Debra Kerner – SBOE6

Chrysta Castañeda – RRC

Vince Ryan – Harris County Attorney
Ben Rose – Harris County Attorney

Filing update: Focus on Harris County

One more look at who has and hasn’t yet filed for stuff as we head into the final weekend for filing. But first, this message:


That’s general advice, not specific to Harris County or to any person or race. With that in mind, let’s review the landscape in Harris County, with maybe a bit of Fort Bend thrown in as a bonus. Primary sources are the SOS candidate page and the Patrick Svitek spreadsheet.

Reps. Sylvia Garcia and Lizzie Fletcher do not have primary opponents, though the spreadsheet does list a possible opponent for Garcia. As previously discussed, Rep. Al Green has a primary opponent, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee has three so far, with at least one more to come. Elisa Cardnell and Travis Olsen have filed in CD02. Mike Siegel and Shannon Hutcheson have filed in CD10, and none of the three known contenders have filed yet in CD22. (Before you ask, no, I don’t know why some candidates seem to wait till the last minute to file.)

In the Lege, the big news is that Penny Shaw has filed in HD148, so the voters there will get their third contested race in a four month time period. At least with only two candidates so far there can’t be a runoff, but there’s still time. Ann Johnson and Lanny Bose have filed in HD134, Ruby Powers has not yet. Over in Fort Bend, Ron Reynolds does not have an opponent in HD27, at least not yet. No other activity to note.

Audia Jones, Carvana Cloud, and Todd Overstreet have filed for District Attorney; incumbent Kim Ogg has not yet filed. Christian Menefee and Vince Ryan have filed for County Attorney, Harry Zamora has entered the race for Sheriff along with incumbent Ed Gonzalez, and Jack Terence, last seen as a gadfly Mayoral candidate in the late 90s and early 2000s, has filed for Tax Assessor; Ann Harris Bennett has not yet filed. Andrea Duhon has switched over to HCDE Position 7, At Large, which puts her in the same race as David Brown, who has not yet filed. Erica Davis has already filed for Position 5, At Large.

In the Commissioners Court races, Rodney Ellis and Maria Jackson are in for Precinct 1; Michael Moore, Kristi Thibaut, Diana Alexander and now someone named Zaher Eisa are in for Precinct 3, with at least one other person still to come. I will note that Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen has not yet filed for re-election, but three other candidates, two of whom filed within the first week of the period, are in for that position. Rosen’s name has been bandied about as a possible Commissioners Court challenger to Steve Radack, and if he is planning to jump to that race it makes sense that he’d take his time, since he’d have to resign immediately afterward. I have no inside scoop here, just a bit of idle speculation. There are no Dems as yet for either Constable or JP in Precincts 5 or 8.

This brings us to the District Courts, and there’s some interesting action happening here. There are a couple of open seats thanks to retirements and Maria Jackson running for Commissioners Court. Herb Ritchie is retiring in the 337th; two contenders have filed. One person has filed in Jackson’s 339th. Someone other than George Powell has filed in the 351st, and someone other than Randy Roll has filed in the 179th. I’m not sure if they are running again or not. Steve Kirkland has a primary opponent in the 334th, because of course he does, and so does Julia Maldonado in the new 507th. Alexandra Smoots-Thomas does not yet have a primary opponent.

Fort Bend County went blue in 2018 as we know, but Dems did not have a full slate of candidates to take advantage of that. They don’t appear to have that problem this year, as there are multiple candidates for Sheriff (where longtime incumbent Troy Nehls is retiring and appears poised to finally announce his long-anticipated candidacy for CD22, joining an insanely large field), County Attorney, and Tax Assessor (HCC Trustee Neeta Sane, who ran for Treasurer in 2006, is among the candidates). The Dems also have multiple candidates trying to win back the Commissioners Court seat in Precinct 1 that they lost in 2016 – one of the candidates is Jennifer Cantu, who ran for HD85 in 2018 – and they have candidates for all four Constable positions.

There are still incumbents and known challengers who have been raising money for their intended offices who have not yet filed. I expect nearly all of that to happen over the weekend, and then we’ll see about Monday. I’ll be keeping an eye on it all.

Filing report update

We’re a week out from the official filing deadline for the 2020 primaries. There’s still a lot of known candidates who haven’t filed yet, but I expect there will be a mad flurry of activity this week, as is usually the case. Don’t be surprised if we hear of an out-of-the-blue retirement or two, as that is known to happen at this time as well. I’m going to take a quick look at where we stand now, and will provide other reports as needed before the deadline on Monday. My sources for this are as follows:

The Patrick Svitek spreadsheet.
The Secretary of State Candidate Information page, which is quite handy and reasonably up to date.
Texas Judges, whose provenance is unknown to me, but they have the most information I’ve found about candidates for statewide and Courts of Appeals judicial races.
Jeff Blaylock’s Texas Election Source – I may be too cheap to subscribe, but the free info he includes is always worth noting.

SBOE

We have a third Democrat in the race for SBOE6, Kimberly McLeod. She is Assistant Superintendent of Education & Enrichment at HCDE and a former professor at TSU. She joins former HCDE Board member Debra Kerner (who has filed) and teacher Michelle Palmer (who had not yet filed, at least according to the SOS, as of this weekend).

We have a filing for SBOE5, the most-flippable of the SBOE districts up for election this year, Letti Bresnahan. Google tells me that a person by this name was a Trustee at San Antonio’s Northside ISD (she is not on the Board now). She was elected in 2008, narrowly re-elected in 2012, and I guess didn’t run in 2016; the Bexar County Elections report for May 2016 doesn’t list the NEISD Position 6 race, so who knows what happened. In 2015, she voted to keep the name of San Antonio’s Robert E. Lee High school; it was subsequently changed to Legacy of Education Excellence (LEE) High School in 2017, by which time as far as I can tell she was no longer on the Board. That’s a whole lot more words than I intended to write about her or this race – and mind you, I can’t say for sure this is the same Letti (Leticia) Bresnahan. I noted this because I’ve been keeping an eye on this race – the district was carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016, it was the bluest of the Republican-held SBOE districts in 2018, and the incumbent is a wingnut. So I was gonna write something when a Dem filed, I just didn’t expect it to be this.

State Senate

Someone named Richard Andrews has filed as a Democrat against Sen. Borris Miles. The Svitek spreadsheet has him as a General Election opponent, but his website clearly says “Democrat”, and the SOS has him as a Democrat. He’s a doctor, and that’s all I know about him.

State House

Current SBOE member Lawrence Allen, Jr, who is the son of State Rep. Alma Allen, has filed in the increasingly crowded Democratic primary in HD26. It’s one of the nine GOP-held districts that Beto won in 2018. Rish Oberoi, Suleman Lalani, and 2018 candidate Sarah DeMerchant have also filed.

Travis Boldt has filed in HD29, in Brazoria County. That was one of two near-miss districts (Beto got 47.0%) in which no Dem was on the ballot in 2018; HD32, which does not yet have a candidate filed, was the other.

Sandra Moore, who lost in the 2018 Dem primary to Marty Schexnayder, has filed to run again in HD133.

Ashton Woods has changed the name of his Facebook page to indicate he plans to run in the primary for HD146, currently held by second-term Rep. Shawn Thierry. He has not filed as of this writing.

So far, no one else has filed to run in the primary for HD148, where Anna Eastman is in the runoff for the special election, and has made her filing for 2020.

First Court of Appeals

I hadn’t gotten into the Courts of Appeals in my previous discussions, but especially after the sweep of these races by Dems in 2018 (and not just on this court), they will surely be of interest to multiple candidates.

Veronica Rivas-Molloy, who has officially filed, and Dinesh Singhal are in the race for Place 3 against incumbent Russell Loyd, who was elected in 2014. The Texas Judges website also lists Keith F. Houston as a candidate, but he appears to have decided not to run.

Amparo Guerra and Tim Hootman have both filed for Place 5, which had been held by the now-resigned Laura Carter Higley. There are three Republicans running so far, and there may be another if Greg Abbott appoints someone to fill the still-vacant seat prior to the filing deadline.

14th Court of Appeals

Jane Robinson is the (so far, at least) lone Democrat running for Chief Justice. I saw her at the HCDP Friendsgiving last month but did not have the chance to walk up and say Hi. The position is held by Justice Kem Thompson Frost, who is not running for re-election. Justice Tracy Christopher, who holds Place 9, is running for Chief Justice. She was last elected in 2016, so she would not otherwise be on the ballot. My assumption is that if she wins, she will move over from Place 9, which will make Place 9 vacant, and Abbott will appoint someone who would then run in Christopher’s spot in 2022. If she loses, she’ll remain in her spot and run for re-election (or not, as she sees fit) in 2022.

Wally Kronzer, who has filed, and Cheri Thomas are running for Place 7. Kronzer ran for Place 5 on this court in 2010. Ken Wise, in his first term, is the incumbent.

District courts

I don’t see any primary challengers yet for incumbent Democratic district court judges. I have heard someone is circulating petitions to challenge Judge Alex Smoots-Thomas, which I think we can all understand. I’m not in a position to say anything more than that as yet.

County offices

Audia Jones has officially filed for Harris County DA. Christian Menefee and Vince Ryan have both filed for County Attorney. Michael Moore has filed for County Commissioner in Precinct 3; Kristi Thibaut and Diana Alexander both announced their filings on Facebook over the weekend, but the SOS has not caught up to those filings yet. Bill McLeod, of accidental resignation fame, has filed to win his old seat on County Civil Court at Law #4 back. Incumbent Judge Lesley Briones has not yet filed. We will have a contested primary for at least one of the two HCDE at large positions, as Erica Davis has filed in Position 5; here’s her appointment of treasurer. Andrea Duhon, who had run for a different HCDE position in 2018, has already filed an appointment of treasurer for this race. David Brown is running for the other spot, Position 7, and as far as I know has no Dem opponent as yet.

Now you know what I know. We’ll all know a lot more in a week’s time.