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What to expect when you’re expecting a (larger) Democratic majority

I have three things to say about this.

Despite narrowly winning reelection against bruising campaigns by well-funded challengers, the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court has made clear it intends to continue its progressive remake of Harris County.

Though neither County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia or Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis invoked the word “mandate,” their public promises of four more years of what they have been doing leaves little doubt about their intentions.

Adding a fourth Democrat in Precinct 4, where former county court at law judge Lesley Briones ousted incumbent Commissioner Jack Cagle will only strengthen that resolve.

It also will prevent the lone Republican remaining on court, Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey from pulling off a quorum break as he did this year with Cagle to prevent the Democratic majority from passing its preferred property tax rate.

“Democrats will likely lean into a more progressive agenda now that they have uniform control of the court,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “They as much as campaigned on this promise.”

The question, Rottinghaus said, is how far Democrats should go in a progressive direction.

“Voters didn’t provide an overwhelming mandate for a major left shift and probably signaled some modest opposition to or, at least, different emphasis on priorities from the prior four years,” Rottinghaus said.

I’m old enough to remember the 2006 election, you know, the one where Rick Perry was elected with 39% of the vote. There was some Discourse at the time about how Perry should be humbled by his weak showing and should mend his ways and just somehow not be so Rick Perry-like. He did none of those things, was easily re-elected again in 2010, was briefly a Presidential candidate in 2012, and eventually became a Cabinet member. Mandates are what you make of them.

With the new stronger majority on the court, Harris County Republican Party Chair Cindy Siegel said she is concerned Democrats will be punitive toward those who have challenged them, pointing to Hidalgo’s victory speech delivered the day after the election.

In those remarks, Hidalgo spoke about her critics who have accused Democrats on the court of defunding police, including what she called “unscrupulous politicians of both parties.” She called out Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, a Democrat, without naming her directly.

“That was sort of what was implied with her statement addressed to those people who didn’t support her. So, does that mean she’s not going to be supportive of the constables and the DA’s office?” Siegel said. “Because it’s one thing saying that you’re for funding and you want to make crime go down, but now it’s time to deliver. That’s what she told people.”

Oh, Cindy. Have you seen what Republicans are promising to do in Congress now that they have a slim majority? That’s what being punitive looks like. There are some significant policy differences between Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Court on the one hand and Kim Ogg and the Constables on the other. Judge Hidalgo has – I’m gonna say it – a mandate to use her office to implement the policies she and the Court campaigned on and think are best. If Ogg and the Constables, who are all up for election in 2024, disagree about that, they can make a campaign issue out of it and hope to get their own mandate at that time. If Hidalgo and the Court really do overstep, that can be ammunition in their fight.

Still, Rottinghaus said, the opposition Democrats faced during the election cycle reflected the difficulty they had messaging on crime issues.

“Governing a massive and ideologically diverse county like Harris means compromising,” he said. “So, despite a solid majority, the close election shows Democrats on the Court need to encourage Republicans to come back to the table.”

This is just your periodic reminder that Harris County Commissioners Court operated with a Republican majority for at least 40 years – I’m only able to verify the Court’s makeup via election results back to about 1974 – before Dems took it in 2019. We operated under Republican laws, rules, norms, and assumptions for a long, long time. Only so much of that can be changed to reflect the current political reality in four years’ time, especially when a Republican minority was still able to wield a budget veto. The fact is that this now-larger Democratic majority – which even with the benefit of redistricting was still hard won – will continue to modify, update, and undo some of the things that we had long done under Republican rule. Everyone needs to wrap their heads around that.

A few words from Judge Hidalgo

Plus a few words that she could have said but didn’t, which I will fill in.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who narrowly won re-election last week over a strong push from GOP candidates and donors, outlined plans for her next four years in office, including continuing anti-crime efforts and doubling down on early childhood education.

“In some ways, it’s a continuation of the past four years — the work we’ve done to tackle violent crime, for example. We’ve already been able to bring down that violent crime rate by at least 10 percent. These are August numbers. We need to do more. We’re going to continue doing that,” Hidalgo said in a press briefing held Thursday.

Hidalgo took a jab at the two Republicans on commissioners court, Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who broke quorum for more than six weeks to stop Democrats from passing their proposed property tax rate. While the Democrats were proposing a tax rate decrease, Ramsey and Cagle argued for a slightly lower rate on the grounds that residents needed more tax relief.

Because the court was not able to reach a state-required quorum of four members present to set the tax rate by the end of October, the county defaulted to what is known as the no-new revenue rate, the levy that would generate the same revenue as last year. The county is projected to take in an additional $45 million from new properties on the tax roll.

Facing a lower tax rate, the court voted to approve a lower budget, cutting nearly $100 million that was to be allocated to law enforcement, including raises for sheriff deputies.

“I’m proud of the record investments we’ve made in public safety, even despite the fact that two colleagues boycotted our budget process and forced us to cut some expenses we’d planned,” Hidalgo said. “Even with that, we’ve been able to see results and we’re working really hard, including with the recent bond that passed, to try to strengthen our criminal justice system.”

County government will keep tackling issues that traditionally have not been on the agenda, she said.

That’s what she said. She didn’t say anything about Constable/JP redistricting, either as a political goal or a policy goal. She didn’t say anything about taking all of those $100 million in forced budget cuts from Tom Ramsey’s precinct, which I would totally tell her to at least publicly muse about if I were advising her. She didn’t say anything about whiny crybaby sore losers pursuing their completely bogus “investigation” of the Elections office. She’s a responsible elected official, and I’m a yahoo on the Internet, so that probably has something to do with it. But these are things that could be said, and maybe will be said in a more measured and nuanced way at some point in the coming weeks. We’ll see. Oh, and be sure also to see the hilariously thin-skinned response she drew for her victory celebration from a local furniture salesman and gambling aficionado. Someone needs a nap, I’d say.

UPDATE: Said furniture salesman gets roundly panned by Chron readers.

The case for redrawing Constable/JP precincts

A Twitter thread of interest:

Note that he means the Justice of the Peace courts. Current maps for those precincts are here. Note that the Constable and Justice of the Peace precincts are the same. Note also how large geographically precincts 4 and 5 are. I’m sure they were quite empty in the 70s, but that was a long time ago. That’s one of the main theses in the accompanying article, which focuses on population growth and caseloads, and how they affect people facing evictions, which are handled by the JP courts.

Every Monday morning, Judge Israel Garcia, Jr., who serves as Harris County Justice of the Peace for Precinct 5, stares down a punishing docket of eviction, debt collection, and traffic cases for the week. His courtroom has a line out the door of parents and children, desperate to resolve a dispute with their landlord or settle a longstanding debt. But the law can be unfriendly to these defendants, and Judge Garcia must know that relief will never come.

All Justice of the Peace Courts in Harris County deal with large caseloads, but the number of cases in Precinct 5 is seemingly endless. If you visit our Harris County Evictions Dashboard, you’ll see how imbalanced the caseload really is – there are 10 times as many cases in Precinct 5 compared to Precinct 6.

What’s going on here? Do renters in Precinct 5 have a much higher risk of eviction than renters in other areas? Are its residents that much more likely to fall behind on their credit card payments or speed through a school zone? No. The reason why Precinct 5 has more cases is because it has more people –  a lot more people. And it has more people because Harris County hasn’t redrawn the boundaries of JP courts since 1973.

For this blog post, I explore just how lopsided the caseloads in Harris County’s JP Courts have become due to a lack of redistricting over the past 50 years. I also show the results from a simulation I ran of 1,000 new maps for the courts that account for population change. Every single one is better than what we have today.

I discussed the political case for redistricting the Constables in an earlier post. That’s a separate matter from what David McClendon is advocating. The two goals, if they are indeed goals for Commissioners Court, would be in some tension here. My first thought is whether McClendon took the Voting Rights Act into account in this exercise, because Precinct 6 – one of two precinct with Hispanic Constables and (with the election of Dolores Lozano in Precinct 2) all Hispanic JPs – would be first in line to be made larger. Precinct 2, the other of those two precincts, is right next to it. Precincts 3 and 7 have Black Constables and JPs. Any potential redrawing of these precincts needs to ensure that Black and Hispanic voters aren’t losing representation.

The Constables are currently five Dems and three Republicans, with Precincts 4 and 8 being all-GOP, while Precinct 5 has one JP from each party following Israel Garcia’s win in 2020. As a practical political matter, Commissioners Court is not going to draw a new set of maps that will make it harder for Democrats to win. Again, as far as I can tell, McClendon didn’t take that into account.

And that’s fine. That wasn’t his idea, and his goal was to even out the caseloads to enable a better process and hopefully better outcomes for tenants facing eviction. The good news here is that McClendon ran a thousand maps, each of which were better than the existing one for his purposes. That strongly suggests to me that the political purpose of not making it harder for Dems to get elected – while also at the least not making it easier for a few specific Constables to get re-elected – can be achieved at the same time as making the courts function better for everyone. Maybe there’s not an optimal solution for each in the same map, but surely improvements can be made. I would absolutely advocate for Commissioners Court to take a long look at this.

Judge Hidalgo celebrates her win

Winning is sweet. Victory laps are even sweeter.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Fresh off a narrow reelection that was anything but assured, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Wednesday held a news conference to praise colleagues, thank supporters and call out some members of her own party for not backing her campaign.

“There were some elected officials that weren’t there because they didn’t think it was convenient, those in my own party that wouldn’t do an ad for me, that wouldn’t have a fundraiser, that wouldn’t help when it got tough,” Hidalgo said. “And oh, I remember who they are.”

The Hidalgo campaign declined to specify which officials she was addressing.

Hidalgo also addressed critics during the election cycle who accused the Democrats on Commissioners Court of defunding police, including what she called “unscrupulous politicians of both parties.”

She called out Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, a Democrat, without naming her directly.

“This person who is supposed to represent justice in this county more than once said with a straight face ‘stop the defunding’ knowing full well that the budget had increased,” Hidalgo said.

[…]

Despite being significantly out-funded by Republican newcomer Alexandra del Moral Mealer, Hidalgo emerged from early voting ahead of her opponent and narrowly maintained that lead throughout the night as votes were counted. The final unofficial tally, released just before 9 a.m. Wednesday, put Hidalgo in front of Mealer by slightly more than 17,000 votes, or 50.8 percent of the nearly 1.1 million votes cast. That was a narrower margin of victory than her surprise election in 2018, when the then-27-year-old ousted popular Republican Ed Emmett.

Mealer tweeted her concession around 9:30 a.m.

“While we did not accomplish our goal of changing leadership in Harris County, we were successful in elevating the profile of critical issues like the need to appropriately resource our law enforcement and criminal justice system as well as the desire to eliminate corruption and increase transparency in local government,” Mealer said in a statement. “This campaign was always about good government and I am hopeful that we have played a role encouraging that going forward.”

Hidalgo acknowledged her opponent’s hard-fought campaign, much of which centered on crime, blaming policies championed by Hidalgo for rising numbers of homicides the past two years, and accusing the first-term judge of corruption, mostly related to a controversial COVID vaccination outreach contract that resulted in indictments against three of her aides.

Since July 1, Mealer raised more than $8.5 million, much of it from large donors like Gallery Furniture owner Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, an early supporter of her campaign. Hidalgo, who has refused to accept campaign contributions from county vendors, raised $2.4 million in that period.

“She had almost $10 million in the bank and she had a U.S. senator and she had a furniture salesman,” Hidalgo said in her speech, taking a swipe at McIngvale who ran several campaign ads in support of Mealer.

“I want to thank Alex Mealer for running a hard fought campaign,” Hidalgo said. “I want to thank her for her concession. And I want to thank her again for her service to our country.”

Surrounded by union leaders and Democratic party elected officials, Hidalgo thanked her supporters for helping her block walk, raise money and host campaign events.

Much of her speech was of a celebratory nature, citing past accomplishments with current Commissioner Court colleagues Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia.

“We have done so much from the very first meeting,” Hidalgo said, citing countywide voting as one example of successes while she has been in office. “We did that at the first meeting in 2019.”

In re: the margin of victory, they are referring to the raw vote differential. In 2018, Judge Hidalgo won by 19,277 votes, while in 2022 it was 17,397 votes. Of course, there were more total votes cast in 2018 than in 2022, which has an effect. As it happens Judge Hidalgo’s margin of victory as a percentage of the vote is greater now than it was then: In 2018 she won 49.76% to 48.18% (there was a Libertarian candidate that took the rest). In 2022, it was 50.79% to 49.19%, with a write-in candidate getting the other 0.02%. That means she won this year by 1.60 percentage points, compared to 1.58 in 2018. Pick your preferred measure of expression.

As for what may be on the agenda for 2023, I’m not the first person to suggest this, but don’t be surprised if Commissioners Court looks at redrawing the Constable/JP precincts. Most counties just have the Constable and JP precincts be the same as the Commissioners Court precincts. Harris has its own weird precincts for them that don’t match up in population and (as I understand it haven’t been updated since the 70s. There’s also no shortage of bad blood between (at least some) Constables and the Court, so a bit of payback may be in order. I suspect this would be a complex matter and would surely invite litigation so I don’t think it will be undertaken lightly, but I will be surprised if it doesn’t at least come up.

Beyond that, I expect the Court to do more of what it’s been doing, with the freedom of knowing that their next budget can’t be busted by no-shows. The main obstacle will continue to be interference from the state and whatever new BS legislation may come down. This is where I remind you that Harris County was under a Republican majority on Commissioners Court going back to at least the mid-70s, which is as far back as I’ve been able to verify, up until 2019 when Dems finally achieved a 3-2 advantage. We’ve done things a certain way for a long damn time. Making changes to make things better will take time, too. For now, we can celebrate a bit as we look forward. Let it out, Judge Hidalgo. You’ve earned it. The Press has more.

Just keep staying away, Commissioners

At this point the pattern is clear. They’re just going to keep staying away, at least until after the election. At which point one can hope that one of them will have a more permanent vacation from these duties.

For those of you who like to bring up the Democratic legislators’ quorum busting from last summer, I will say again that these two have the right to do what they are doing, per the law and the rules of the chamber. That doesn’t mean they’re free from being criticized for it. I will also note that for a variety of reasons, the quorum-busting Democrats eventually came back, and the thing they were trying to stop got passed by the legislative majority in place. Also, for those of us old enough to remember 2003, the Legislature made some subsequent rule changes to make it harder to break quorum, and there were some penalties in terms of committee assignments and other bureaucratic matters in the next session. Assuming there’s still a Democratic majority on the Court in 2023, it would be well within their rights to see about making life a little less pleasant for whichever of their Republican colleagues are still there. I hope someone is at least thinking about that.

Republican Commissioners abscond again

Cowards.

Republicans Tom Ramsey of Precinct 3 and Jack Cagle of Precinct 4 skipped Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting as part of an ongoing battle of political wills that could extend until the deadline for approving a tax rate passes at the end of October.

The decision prompted the three Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court to go into an executive session to discuss with the county attorney’s office whether they have legal options to compel the two missing commissioners to attend. County Judge Lina Hidalgo had little to report after the session but said the county attorney’s office is researching options.

The court will consider the tax rate again at its next meeting on Oct. 11, potentially forcing the two Republican commissioners to make a similar decision next month if they have not reached a compromise by then.

Hidalgo opened the meeting alternately lambasting Ramsey and Cagle’s absence and lamenting the potential impacts of the county’s inability to approve its proposed tax rate.

“Our hospital system will operate at a $45 million deficit,” Hidalgo said. “A cadet class will be at risk.”

State law requires four members of the court be present to set the property tax rate.

See here and here for the background. There’s apparently some talk of a compromise, which would need to happen soon, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Giving this much power to a governing minority is the problem here. I don’t know what legal options the majority has, but I do know that the Speaker of the House has the authority to call upon the Texas Rangers to round up legislative quorum-busters, which is why they always flee the state. Maybe Judge Hidalgo can call on the Sheriff to pick up the wayward Commissioners and haul them into the meeting room so that the legal requirement of at least four members being present can be met? I suppose if this happens the next thing we’ll hear about is Angela Paxton driving them away, probably as they hunch down in the back seat of her SUV, for the safety of the suburbs. Just for the comedy value, I’d like to see this scenario play out. I won’t hold my breath for it.

Republican Commissioners skip out again

Cowards.

Harris County’s two Republican commissioners skipped Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting, preventing county leaders from passing a property tax rate and proposed budget for the next fiscal year beginning on Oct. 1.

State law requires four members of the court be present to set the tax rate. With only the court’s three Democrats present, the county was forced to adopt what is known as the no new revenue rate, a levy that brings in the same amount of property tax revenue as last year.

[…]

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the two Republican commissioners “don’t have a plan, they have a campaign ad.”

Hidalgo added that Ramsey and Cagle’s decision to skip the budget vote defunds law enforcement by millions of dollars.

[…]

With the adoption of the no new revenue rate instead of the proposed rate, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office will lose out on $5.3 million in proposed increases. The Sheriff’s Office will lose $16.6 million for patrol and administration, plus another $23.6 million for detention.

In response to that funding difference, Dane Schiller, spokesperson for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said in a statement: “It is crucial that our criminal-justice system be properly funded – the right number of deputies, courthouse staff and prosecutors – and it is up to our elected leaders to set funding priorities.”

Overall, the $2.1 billion budget will be $108 million less than the county had proposed.

The loss of the proposed increases for law enforcement comes after efforts by Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar that briefly blocked the county from considering its $2.2 billion budget proposal.

The court had moved forward last week with the budgeting process after a lawyer for the state acknowledged in a Travis County courtroom that the comptroller had no authority to block the county from approving its budget. Hegar can take action only after the budget is approved and if it violates a new state law that bars local governments from reducing spending on law enforcement.

See here for the background. Yes, the Republican Commissioners have done this before. The Constitution allows for this form of minority rule. That doesn’t mean I have to respect it. The main thing I will say here is that I never want to hear any Republican whine about “defunding the police” again, not after the ridiculous bullshit we’ve had to endure from the Comptroller and now from these two clowns, who will be fully responsible for cutting the Sheriff and District Attorney’s budgets. Move on to something else, this has lost all meaning.

The active shooter hoax at our neighborhood school

This made for a super eventful Tuesday afternoon.

Police and panicked parents scrambled to Heights High School Tuesday afternoon, in frantic response to a false report that a gunman had shot 10 people in a room on the 2,400-student Houston ISD campus.

The school went into lock down around 1 p.m., and police officers found the room locked and immediately breached the door, according to Chief Troy Finner. Two sweeps of the school found nothing, according to the Houston Police Department.

“We have no injuries here,” Finner said at a news briefing as a crowd of parents stood at an intersection near the high school. “Thank god for that.”

Officials intend to determine who made the hoax call and hold that person accountable. Finner said police believe the call may have come from outside the school.

“There was no active shooter here — there was a fight,” said Constable Alan Rosen.

An email notified parents later that Heights High, as well as nearby Hogg Middle and Harvard and Travis Elementary schools, were placed in lockdown.

“As a precautionary measure, we went into lockdown mode,” Heights Principal Wendy Hampton said in an email to parents. “Houston Police Department and HISD Police are onsite and continue to investigate, though no evidence has been found to substantiate the threat. We take all threats seriously as the safety of our students and staff is always our top priority.”

As it happens, I had to go into the office Tuesday afternoon. I was headed out a little after 1 PM, and was on Studewood going towards the I-10 entrance when I saw three HPD cars with lights and sirens going headed the other way at full speed. I didn’t give it much thought until after I had arrived at the office, took a minute to check Twitter, and found out what was happening. I don’t currently have any kids at Heights or the other schools that got locked down, but my kids have friends there and I have friends and neighbors who have kids at all of them. It was pretty stressful, to say the least, and I had the luxury of not having to be frantic about my own kids. My thoughts today remain with those parents and those kids.

Shannon Velasquez burst into tears on Tuesday afternoon as she waited on the sidewalk near Heights High School, where her daughter and hundreds more students were locked down in their classrooms after someone made a false report about a mass shooting.

The mother knew her daughter was fine — she had spoken with the sophomore student on FaceTime as she sped to school from work.

Still, she could not shake a horrible feeling, and her frustration bubbled over as she heard conflicting information from parents and officers about where she should go to reunite with her child.

“As if this isn’t bad enough?” she said. “I just can’t wait to put my arms around my kid.”

Anxiety, panic and confusion erupted on Tuesday afternoon in the residential streets surrounding Heights High School. Personnel from at least eight law enforcement agencies sped to the scene with lights and sirens. Panicked parents rushed from jobs and lunch appointments. Some drivers ditched their cars on the grassy median along Heights Boulevard, and walked or ran several blocks to the school.

Parents gathered information from their children, other parents, news reports and officials — eventually learning that their kids were safe and the massive frenzy actually stemmed from a false alarm.

Still, some parents said they were frustrated by sparse communication from the school, district or law enforcement agencies, although HISD and law enforcement agencies have defended their response.

[…]

Luis Morales, HISD spokesman, said notifications went out to parents 23 minutes after the district became aware of the situation.

“We were able to get that out a quicker than we have before,” Morales said, adding that the district must verify information before sending out notifications.

Chief Troy Finner said during a news briefing on Tuesday afternoon that he sympathized with parents who were frustrated. But safety comes before notifications, he said.

“We have to search the school. That is the most important thing — to stop the threat if there’s a threat,” he said. “We don’t have time to call. Once we make it safe, we start making those calls.”

Houston Fire Chief Samuel Pena said more than two dozen units from HFD responded to the scene. The first unit arrived two minutes after HFD received the call, he said, and quickly began coordinating a rescue team with police.

“The community expects the first responders to get on scene quickly, to get on scene and coordinate and start taking action as soon as they get on scene,” he said. “That’s exactly what we did.”

I have nothing but sympathy for the parents here. I was scrambling around looking for accurate information too, and the stakes were much lower for me. I have no doubt I’d have been out of my mind and super upset at how long it took to get updates. I also have a lot of sympathy for HISD and HPD, who were understandably reluctant to get out ahead of what they knew. I don’t have a good answer for this.

As relieved as we all are that this turned out to be nothing, we have to talk about the law enforcement response, since that is an obvious item of interest after Uvalde. In addition to HPD, there were deputies from the Precinct 1 Constable and the Sheriff’s office at the scene, and I assume there were some HISD cops as well. We do know that HPD entered Heights HS in search of the alleged shooter, which is good to know, but we don’t know more than that about who was in charge and who was making what decisions. Given what we know about the thoroughly botched response in Uvalde, this should be used as an opportunity for HPD and HISD to review their processes, make sure they have agreements in place, and so on. In the end, thankfully this was just a drill. We damn well better learn from it.

Comptroller caves on phony “defunding” claim

In the end, he folded like a lawn chair.

Harris County is moving through the process of passing a fiscal 2023 budget with a 1 percent dip in the property tax rate, after the specter of the state blocking its approval eased in a Travis County courtroom Tuesday.

Prospects for approval of that $2.2 billion budget and the new tax rate next week remain unknown, however, hinging on whether enough members of Commissioners Court show up.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, despite recently threatening to block Harris County’s proposed budget over its alleged defunding of law enforcement, has not formally determined that the county violated state law or otherwise taken action to prevent county leaders from adopting a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, a state attorney said in court Tuesday.

The acknowledgment came as part of a county lawsuit challenging Hegar’s claims, including those from a letter last month in which the Republican comptroller told county officials they would need voter approval to pass their budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

Commissioners Court moved ahead with its budgeting process in the meantime, meeting Tuesday to consider the county’s property tax rate — a procedural step before the court can vote on next year’s budget. Officials first must propose the tax rate, the step taken Tuesday, then hold a public hearing, scheduled for Sept. 13. At that meeting, provided enough commissioners show up, the court can approve the rate and the budget.

On a 3-2 vote, the court on Tuesday proposed the overall tax rate for the county — comprising four rates covering county operations, the Harris Health system, the flood control district and the Port of Houston — at 57.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. That represents about a 1 percent decrease from the current rate of 58.1 cents per $100.

[…]

In an emergency hearing before Travis County state District Judge Lora Livingston, attorney Will Thompson of the Texas Attorney General’s Office — which is representing Hegar and Gov. Greg Abbott in the lawsuit by the county — said the dispute “may be a situation where there’s much ado about nothing and the parties are in more agreement than they realize.”

“The comptroller just has not made a final determination,” Thompson said. “He has not done anything that binds Harris County at this stage. Harris County remains free to adopt a budget, in its normal process, following its normal rules for having public meetings and things like that.”

Instead of ruling on Harris County’s request for a temporary order preventing Hegar from blocking Harris County’s budget, Livingston told attorneys for the county and state to, essentially, put Thompson’s comments in writing in a formal court filing. She gave the two sides until Wednesday afternoon to submit the document.

The statement from Thompson came a week after Harris County Administrator David Berry sent Hegar a letter asking him to clarify whether he had “made or issued a determination that Harris County’s proposed budget violates the law” or prevented the county from adopting a budget.

Hegar responded by encouraging Berry to resolve the issue with the Harris County constables who initially complained about their funding.

“I understand that you want assurances from my office, but only Harris County can resolve this issue and clear the path to adopt its budget,” Hegar wrote.

See here and here for the background. It’s very clear from the state’s response to the lawsuit is that they were bluffing the whole time and they knew it. This is why the lawsuit was the right response, despite the whining from Constables Heap and Herman. You don’t concede when you’re right. Kudos to Judge Hidalgo, Commissioners Ellis and Garcia, and County Attorney Menefee for properly fighting this.

The rest of the story is about whether the two Republican members of the Court will break quorum again in order to prevent the budget and property tax rate from being passed. I don’t feel like deciphering their eleven-dimensional chess strategy this time around, so let’s just wait and see what happens. If we get the election results we want, we won’t have to worry about these shenanigans again.

Harris County approves the option of suing Comptroller over baloney “defunding” claim

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Wednesday authorized a pair of private law firms to sue Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, who accused the county of defunding law enforcement last week, forcing a halt to consideration of its $2.2 billion budget.

The move, approved by a 3-1 vote, came a week after Hegar sent a letter to county officials saying the court could not approve its proposed fiscal 2023 budget without approval of voters because of a change in policy that he said would result in the county funding two constable offices at a lower level in violation of a new state law.

The constables — Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman and Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap — had complained to Gov. Greg Abbott last year after the county changed its policy to do away with “rollover” budgeting that had allowed departments to keep unspent funds and use them in future budget cycles. Hegar’s letter said the change would result in the county, under its proposed budget, cutting funding to the two constable offices by $3 million.

[…]

In a letter to Hegar on Tuesday, County Administrator David Berry asked the Comptroller’s Office to clarify its investigation and whether it prevents the county from adopting a tax rate and budget.

The comptroller responded Wednesday by modifying his claim, alleging the proposed budget would result in a cut in law enforcement spending for a different reason — by comparing the proposed spending plan to this year’s 2022 short fiscal year budget, when broken down by month.

In addition to eliminating rollover budgeting, the county is changing its fiscal year to begin Oct. 1 rather than March 1. To accomplish that, Commissioners Court planned to pass two budgets this year. The first, a shortened budget, was approved in February and runs through September. The second, beginning Oct. 1, will span a full year.

Berry criticized the comptroller for using “fuzzy math,” saying the short fiscal year budget covered 16 pay periods.

“There’s no other reasonable way to do it,” he said. “When you properly annualize the budget, it’s clearly higher in FY23 (the proposed budget).”

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Hegar’s second letter suggests the Comptroller’s Office is walking back its original defunding claim.

“They’re beginning to realize that the allegations they made make little sense,” Hidalgo said. “They’re moving away from talking about the rollover. They know that that’s absolutely nonsensical and are trying to take a different tack that also doesn’t make sense.”

Berry also took issue with the comptroller’s assertion the county should work the issue out with the constables.

“We believe we’ve complied with the law,” Berry said. “If the comptroller doesn’t, they have to explain. All we’ve gotten so far is some fuzzy math.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, Commissioners Court hired two law firms to represent the county — Yetter Coleman LLP and Alexander Dubose & Jefferson LLP — in a split vote, with the court’s three Democrats in favor and Republican Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle opposed. Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey was absent.

Hidalgo said she is willing to move forward through legal action or negotiation, but the county needs to be careful in how it responds to allegations of violating the new state law.

“I am pretty opposed to giving in to any kind of extortion,” Hidalgo said. “I don’t know what precedent that would set.”

See here for the background. This new explanation is even dumber and more insulting than the original one. Of course an eight-month budget is going to have less of pretty much everything in it than a 12-month budget. If the Comptroller had been at all serious about this, the matter could have been easily resolved. Instead, they charged ahead with this stupid allegation, which unfortunately comes with the power to prevent the county from passing a budget, a situation which as noted would result in an actual decrease in funding to the Sheriff and Constables. It’s like they looked around to make sure there was a rake in easy stepping distance before they moved forward.

The response from Harris County – minus Commissioner Cagle, of course – and Judge Hidalgo was entirely appropriate. The county cannot take lightly an accusation that it is violating the law. The fact that the accusation itself is completely specious is almost beside the point, but given that it is there are only two acceptable resolutions: The Comptroller retracts its claim and absolves Harris County of any alleged wrongdoing, so that it can pass its budget as planned, or we go to court and let them try to prove their foolish claims. No concessions, because there’s nothing to concede.

Which brings me to this:

Herman and Heap said the court’s action on Wednesday took them by surprise. The two Republican constables said they had met with county officials late last week and Monday and thought they had come up with a solution.

The pair, Herman said, had agreed to write letters saying their concerns had been resolved. Hegar would have to write his own letter rescinding his previous communications with the county.

“Both sides were agreeing,” Herman said. “We agreed to put this thing to rest.”

Then, he said, he learned that Hidalgo had put an item on the agenda for Wednesday’s special meeting to pursue possible legal action against Hegar.

“It’s almost like a slap in the face,” he said. “We’re kind of disappointed. We’ll see what happens.”

Herman said if the county continues forward with a strategy of suing Hegar, he and Heap would request their own legal counsel to represent their interests in the broadening fight.

In a brief text message, Heap confirmed he had met with county officials in recent days and echoed Herman’s frustration.

“We have been in negotiations with the office of budget management for several days and I was very encouraged with the progress,” he texted. “However, the actions of Commissioners court today as well as some of their post on social media platforms disappoint me.”

You dudes started this fight. If you don’t like the way the Court is finishing it, that’s tough. Maybe don’t be such crybabies next time.

Harris County looks to sue over Comptroller’s BS “defunding” claim

Tell it to the judge.

Harris County Commissioners Court this week is expected to hire an outside law firm to take legal action against the state and Comptroller Glenn Hegar, who accused the county of defunding law enforcement in violation of state law.

The accusation by Hegar, delivered in a letter to county Judge Lina Hidalgo last week, blocks Harris County from approving its proposed $2.2 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

The court will hold a special meeting Wednesday to consider hiring the law firm of Alexander Dubose & Jefferson LLP to pursue legal action against Hegar and other state officials.

Hegar threw the curveball just before county officials presented their proposed spending plan last tuesday, saying the county should reconsider its budget plan or gain voter approval for it. The letter, however, was sent on Monday, the last day the county could get a measure onto the November ballot.

Senate Bill 23, passed by the Texas Legislature and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott last year, bars counties with a population of more than 1 million from cutting law enforcement spending without the approval of voters.

The defunding accusation was sparked by two Republican Harris County constables — Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman and Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap — who had complained to Gov. Greg Abbott after the county changed its policy last year to do away with “rollover” budgeting that had allowed departments to save unspent funds and use them in future budget cycles.

Herman and Heap did not respond to requests for comment.

In his letter, Hegar said doing away with the rollover funds resulted in a loss of $3 million previously dedicated to the constables office in fiscal 2021. However, by preventing the county from adopting its proposed budget, the letter could cost the sheriff, constables and district attorney’s office an additional $100 million in funding included in the new spending plan, county officials said.

On Wednesday, Commissioners Court could vote to authorize two outside law firms to file a lawsuit against the comptroller. If the county does pursue legal action, other state officials could be named, as well.

See here for the background on this completely ridiculous claim. The vote in Commissioners Court is today; I’ll be interested to see if it’s unanimous or not. I also have no idea what to expect from the courts, but I sure hope they get it right, because this is a terrible precedent to set otherwise. Finally, a special shoutout to Constables Herman and Heap for going radio silent after leaving this bag of poop on the Court’s front porch. Mighty courageous of you two there.

The Constables’ and Comptroller’s ridiculous complaint

This is transparent bullshit.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar this week accused Harris County commissioners of defunding local constables and threatened to prevent the county from implementing its proposed 2023 budget if the county does not reverse course.

In a letter sent late Monday, Hegar said the county’s move to do away with “rollover” budgeting led to more than $3 million dedicated to the constables last year being returned to the general fund.

“If the county proceeds with the Constable budget as proposed without obtaining voter approval, the county may not adopt an ad valorem tax rate that exceeds the county’s no-new-revenue tax rate,” Hegar wrote.

Harris County Administrator David Berry on Tuesday afternoon said Hegar’s position would prevent the county from adopting a budget that increases funding to Harris County Constables’ and Sheriff’s offices by “millions of dollars.”

“The Comptroller’s position would keep us from making these new investments,” he said, “which is contrary to the intent of SB 23. … I hope the Comptroller’s position does not prevent us from achieving our goal, and we look forward to working with the state to resolve this matter.

Berry said that in the past, county departments could “roll over” their unspent budget from one year to the next “with no questions asked.”

“This practice was unique to Harris County and is not the practice of other local governments,” he said. “Under the current policy, departments, including the Constable’s Offices, can request the use of unspent funds on vehicles, equipment, and other one-time expenses. The County has continued to support these investments.”

Paradoxically, by preventing Harris County from adopting the new tax rate, Hegar’s actions would prevent the county from implementing $96.7 million in increases to the sheriff and constable offices, and a proposed $10 million increase to the District Attorney’s Office.

Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman — one of the two constables who first raised the issue with Abbott — said he was “thankful” to the governor and to Hegar for looking into the matter.

“We look forward to a resolution one way or another,” he said, explaining that he and other constables had used their rollover funds to purchase new patrol cars and safety equipment, and in some cases, to pay employees’ salaries.

“All that’s been taken away from us,” he said. “What it’s come to is an elected official has no say in his own department, basically, and it’s jeopardized public safety and officer safety.”

[…]

Hegar said his investigation began after Harris County Precinct 4 and Precinct 5 Constables Mark Herman and Ted Heap wrote to the governor complaining about losing their “rollover” funds last year. Prior to County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s election in 2018, county commissioners had allowed county agencies to keep unspent funds, which “rolled over” into the following year’s budget. Constables used the money for a variety of projects and other issues — including paying for some staff.

Eva DeLuna Castro, who oversees budget and fiscal policy analysis for Every Texan, said that within state agencies, rolling over unspent money from one budget cycle to the next was permitted only in a very limited number of circumstances, and generally required the specific approval of the legislature.

After Hidalgo’s election, the county did away with the unusual budgeting technique and adopted more traditional budgeting practices — similar to what the state requires of its own agencies and their funding.

Hegar sent the letter to commissioners late last night — the deadline for when the county would potentially be able to add any voter initiatives to the ballot.

County officials disputed Hegar’s claims, noting that the decision to do away with rollover funds took place before SB23 went into effect. They also disputed Hegar’s numbers.

A review of county records show that the county allocated $205,290,000 to its constables in 2020. This year, its proposed budget includes a 13 percent increase to the constables budget, for a total of $231,491,249.

The two constables who first complained to Gov. Greg Abbott about losing their rollover funds have also seen increases to their budget. In 2020, Precinct 4 received about $57 million in funding; Precinct 5 received $44 million. This year, county commissioners have proposed giving Pct. 4 $65 million, while Pct. 5 is slated to receive more than $48 million.

I mean, come on:

1. Harris County is increasing its spending on public safety across the board.

2. The two Constables in question are each getting more money in this budget than in the previous one. The Constables overall are getting more money.

3. “Rollover budget” means unspent funds from the previous cycle. These two Constables didn’t even spend all the money they had been allocated before!

4. The practice of not rolling over funds is exactly how the state does its own budgeting, including for DPS.

From every angle this is ridiculous, and clearly driven by partisan motives – the two Constables in question are Republicans. I don’t expect to get better arguments about public policy from these clowns, but I am insulted that they can’t come up with a better pretext for their crap than this. Shame on everyone involved. The Trib has more.

The independents

Recently I got an email from a gentleman named Ted Wood, who wrote to inform me that he had successfully completed the requirements to be an independent candidate for Chief Justice of the First Court of Appeals on the November 2022 ballot. The basic requirements to be an independent candidate for non-statewide office are filing a declaration of intent to run as an indy – this is to be done at the filing deadline – and then collecting 500 signatures from people who didn’t vote in the primaries.

Wood told me his candidacy is the first Independent run for an appellate bench in Texas since 1996. I hadn’t checked that at the time he told me, but I believed it. In my experience, most of the independent candidates run for Congress or the Legislature. I’ll get to some past numbers in a minute, but did you know that there’s no public listing of independent candidates for the 2022 election right now? Obviously there will be one in about a month when the ballots are finalized and printed to be sent to overseas voters, but if you want to know right now who besides Ted Wood is an independent candidate running for state or federal office in Texas, you have to make a Public Information Act request to the Secretary of State. Seems crazy to me, but here we are.

Anyway, Wood did this and shared the list with me, which you can see here. It’s six candidates for Congress, two for the State House, and him. Two of the Congressional candidates are repeat customers – Vince Duncan has been an indy for Cd18 in 2020, 2018, and 2014, while Chris Royal ran as an indy for CD34 in 2020. The current cycle and the last two have been relatively busy ones for independent candidates for Congress – six this year, seven in 2020 and 2018, though in 2018 there were two in CD09, so indy candidates were only in six races – but for whatever the reason it wasn’t like that at all before 2018. I found no independent candidates for Congress in 2016, two in 2014, and one in 2012. I have no explanation for that – if you have one, let me know. I found one independent candidate for State House in each of 2014, 2016, and 2018; I didn’t search 2020 because the new format on the SOS website is a pain in the ass for that sort of thing. I found no independent candidates for any other offices since 2012, which was as far back as I checked for state elections.

Wood also inquired with Harris County about any independent candidates running for county offices. He was informed by Judge Lina Hidalgo’s office that there were no independent candidates for county office on the ballot in Harris County in 2022. This didn’t surprise me, as I couldn’t think of any recent examples of such a candidacy offhand. I went back through Harris County election results all the way to 1996, and found two non-legislative indies in that time. One was a candidate for the 245th Civil District Court in 2002, an Angelina Goodman, who got 3.69% of the vote. That’s not a county office, though – it’s a state office. I finally found a genuine indy for a county office in 1996. In the race that year for Constable in Precinct 7, a fellow named Andy Williams was the sole opponent to Democrat A. B. Chambers, and he got 6.39% of the vote. You learn something new every day.

Anyway. Wood as noted is running for Chief Justice of the First Court of Appeals, a seat that is being vacated by Sherry Radack. Democrat Julie Countiss, who is currently a Justice on this court but for another bench (she can run for Chief Justice without giving up her current seat), and Republican Terry Adams, who had been appointed to the First Court for Place 5 in 2020 then lost to Amparo Guerra that November, are his opponents. He’s working now in the Harris County Public Defender’s office. Before that, he worked for the General Counsel at the Texas Office of Court Administration (OCA) in Austin, and served two terms as County Judge in Randall County. As a Democratic precinct chair I am supporting Julie Countiss, who is also someone I know in real life and who I voted for the First Court in 2018. But I enjoyed having the chance to talk to Ted Wood, and I definitely appreciate the opportunity to get a nerdy blog post out of it. Hope you enjoyed this little excursion into electoral miscellania as well.

Plaintiff in Constable Precinct 1 lawsuit responds

She’s not having it with the dismissal of Constable Alan Rosen as a defendant from the lawsuit.

Constable Alan Rosen

The booze-fueled undercover hotel operations were bad. Felecia McKinney’s worst moment at the Precinct 1 Constable’s Office, however, came two years ago, during an undercover sting at a Massage Heights near the Texas Medical Center.

Another Precinct 1 employee had been assaulted at the business. Her bosses wanted her to pose as a customer, wait to see if he acted again, and then give a signal to bust him and take him down.

When she emerged from the spa, a superior told her to drive herself to the hospital to get a sexual assault examination while Constable Alan Rosen held a celebratory news conference in the business’ parking lot, she said at a press conference Friday.

[…]

After the spa sting, McKinney and Erica Davis — the Precinct 1 employee whose assault led to the investigation of Massage Heights — sued the establishment, saying the budget spa chain, its employee, owner and franchisor were negligent in training and supervision. Davis agreed to a monetary settlement in the case but McKinney’s complaint is still pending. Criminal charges against Wenjin Zhu, the massage therapist accused of sexually assaulting Davis and McKinney on the massage table two days apart, are also still pending. Zhu is detained in the county jail.

Though her lawyers have described her experience in court filings, McKinney had never addressed the public about her sexual assault in August 2019 until her brief remarks to reporters at her attorney’s office Friday morning.

“He knows what happened to me,” McKinney said of Rosen. “He intended it. He ordered it. And to hear him claim victory — and that he wouldn’t be held personally accountable for something he’s admitted to doing makes me feel attacked, unheard, and very alone.”

What angered her the most, she said, was reading comments from Rosen’s defenders that the constable should never have been included in the lawsuit in the first place.

“This case was never about money for me. It was about exposing the truth and holding people accountable,” she said, her voice catching. “When I read his comments and his attorney’s comments, I felt really victimized in ways I never expected. …When I saw the claim that he never should have been in the lawsuit, after ordering an operation that I go in to be sexually assaulted, I broke down.”

See here for the previous entry. I don’t know if the decision to remove Rosen as a defendant was a good one or not – I presume it can be appealed, but regardless of that the lawsuit itself if still ongoing. The allegations still refer to things that happened under Constable Rosen’s watch. I’m still far from convinced that any of the undercover actions were a good use of law enforcement resources, whether or not the deputies in question were put in needless danger. I don’t know what will come of this case, but we need to hear what Ms. McKinney and her fellow plaintiffs have to say.

Constable Rosen removed from sexual harassment lawsuit

Good news for him, but the suit continues.

Constable Alan Rosen

Harris County Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen has prevailed in a legal effort to be removed from a lawsuit accusing department supervisors of sexual misconduct against female subordinates in an undercover anti-prostitution unit.

In a five-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt on Monday ruled Rosen could not be personally sued for the misconduct allegations that several current and former deputies and another employee had made about conduct within the unit. Plaintiffs can continue to pursue their lawsuit against Harris County and Assistant Chief Deputy Chris Gore and Lt. Shane Rigdon, the judge ruled.

Hoyt explained his ruling by saying he’d concluded that the plaintiffs’ allegations against Gore and Rigdon were “enough to raise a right to relief” but that the plaintiffs had not made any claims that would support Rosen’s individual liability under civil rights law.

Rosen touted the ruling in a news release in which he said he had “full faith in the Court’s review” of the motion.

“I thank the court for its considered review of the law as it pertains the motion to dismiss me from this matter,” he said, “and for granting that dismissal such that my full focus can remain on the needs of the residents of Precinct 1.”

Lawyers for the female deputies said they were undeterred, pointing to Hoyt’s decision to allow the suit to proceed against Harris County and against Gore and Rigdon.

“While Alan Rosen has been able to protect his personal financial interests, his conduct is still very much a part of the lawsuit,” attorneys Cordt Akers and Bill Ogden said, in a written statement.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. You can see a copy of the ruling in the story. While this is good news for Constable Rosen personally, the lawsuit is still active – this was a motion to dismiss, and it was denied for the other two defendants. For that reason, ignore this:

Rosen attorney Ben Hall said Wednesday that his client “should never have been in the lawsuit in the first place.”

He said believed Rosen was added to the lawsuit to tarnish his political viability.

“I think the fact the judge dispensed (with this matter) so quickly will at least remove this stain,” Hall said, “So he can move down the road. And if it is his fate to be sheriff, I think he’d be a fabulous sheriff.”

Sorry, but this still happened on his watch. He may not be legally liable for damages, but he’s still responsible. Maybe if the remaining defendants are cleared we can talk about his future ambitions, but until then let’s cool our jets. This is far from over.

FBI looking into Constable “bachelor party sting” mess

Never a good sign.

Constable Alan Rosen

Federal investigators are probing the Harris County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office after several current and former female employees accused superiors of sexually exploiting them during undercover anti-human trafficking operations, a lawyer for the women confirmed Thursday.

Attorney Cordt Akers, who is representing several of the women, confirmed Thursday that federal investigators had subpoenaed his clients to learn more about their allegations.

“Our clients have been in full cooperation with the federal authorities in their investigation into the horrible misconduct in the Precinct 1 Human Trafficking Unit,” he said, in response to questions from the Chronicle. “The serious nature of these crimes deserves serious attention, and we are happy that this conduct will no longer go unchecked.”

FBI Spokeswoman Christina Garza declined to comment on the case.

“Per Department of Justice policy, the FBI does not confirm or deny the existence of any investigation,” she said.

[…]

In an emailed statement, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she was “aware” of the allegations and “obviously concerned,” but said the lawsuit prevented her from saying anything more.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia — who has previously clashed with the constables over questions about efficiency or redundant or wasteful law enforcement operations — said the FBI “must have the opportunity to thoroughly investigate these allegations.”

“Without knowledge of specific facts, this is not a time to speculate on what may have transpired,” he said. “That being said the allegations that have been made public are extremely disturbing and these women deserve to have their allegations thoroughly investigated.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I did call for an outside investigation into this case. Not what I had in mind, but it counts. Unless something leaks, we’re not going to know any more about this until such time as the FBI finishes its business. So sit back and wait patiently, and be glad you’re not Alan Rosen right now. The Press has more.

Again with the existential Constable question

Here’s a long and detailed story in the Chron about the history and purpose of the Constable office in Harris County, where they are bigger and do more than anywhere else in the state.

Constable Alan Rosen

The lawsuit’s allegations were stunning: Harris County Precinct 1 deputy constables assigned to fight human trafficking had been exploited and molested by their superiors during undercover “bachelor party” stings. Undercover deputies pretended to be partying, with the hope of convincing escorts to agree to sex for cash — so they could try to build cases against the women’s pimps. But female deputies said they received little training before being thrown into “booze-fueled playgrounds” in which their bosses groped them.

Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen defended his agency, saying internal investigators hadn’t found any violations of policy or law, but for many, the accusations against high-ranking officials of the department reignited a debate that has simmered in Houston for the last half century: What is the appropriate role of the constables? And why were deputy constables running undercover prostitution stings — far afield from their traditional roles of policing rural counties or working as process servers and protecting local justice of the peace courts?

Many constables’ offices elsewhere in Texas have just a few employees. But not in Harris County. For a half century, Houston-area constables have steadily accrued more power and more responsibility. Now, they occupy a position unlike any other in Texas. According to records from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, Harris County’s largest constable jurisdictions far outnumber any other constables’ offices elsewhere in the state. Harris County’s largest constable’s office, Precinct 4, mans 567 deputies and dispatchers and has a budget of $60 million, according to county records. The largest department outside of Harris County, the Montgomery County Precinct 3 Constable’s Office, has 65 employees, state records show, and a budget of about $6 million, according to Montgomery County records.

Critics say the offices are bloated and out of control, duplicating other law enforcement agencies and creating a two-tier system where wealthy neighborhoods pay for what amounts to a private security force. Defenders say constables provide badly needed backup to the region’s larger departments, while constables themselves say that because they are elected, they are more responsive to their constituents.

“Constables are first line on community policing,” said Matt Wylie, newly elected president of the Justices of the Peace and Constables Association and Constable of the Johnson County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office. “We are elected by smaller percentage of county, more accountable to people we serve.”

The story is based on the scandal in the Constable Precinct 1 office that we are still waiting to learn more about. It’s a long story and there’s way too much to excerpt, but let me address a couple of points. I do think there’s a lot of duplication of effort in what the Constables do versus what the Sheriff and HPD do, and I don’t think there’s any good way to address that. Ideally, there would be better communication and coordination between these organizations, but there isn’t the incentive for that to happen and no way to enforce it. We could of course just limit what the Constables do, so that they’re more like Constables in other counties, but given where we are now that would be a heavy lift.

I know that we have had this discussion before, probably circa 2012 when two different Constables got arrested for various bad acts. In poking around a bit, I see that there was a report by then-County Attorney Vince Ryan on the practices of the various Constable offices. Maybe an update to that report, which is now almost a decade old and was criticized for not being comprehensive enough, is in order. How much duplication of services is there? How much do the Constables fill in gaps in other law enforcement services? What return are we getting on those fancy task forces that several of them have set up? An outside view of all that might shed some light on things.

In the meantime, I just want to know more about what is going on with the Precinct 1 situation. I recognize that there’s only so much that can be said while there is pending litigation, but this is still a public office and we need to know what the scope and purpose of that “human trafficking” division is, and what they have actually accomplished. We needed to know that before all this crap hit the fan.

Bring in an outside investigator

That’s the Chron editorial board’s advice for Constable Alan Rosen.

Constable Alan Rosen

Rosen’s office declined to comment to the editorial board Thursday, but in an earlier statement, he said that when he was made aware of the allegations, he “proactively” ordered an internal affairs investigation months ago and “immediately” replaced the supervisor of the human trafficking unit. The investigation, he said, found no violations of law or policy. The constable, whose name has been floated as a replacement for Sheriff Ed Gonzalez if he joins the Biden Administration, suggested the allegations were being brought to impugn his department’s reputation.

“I have a zero-tolerance stance against sexual assault and sexual harassment and would never allow a hostile work environment as alleged,” he said.

If Rosen means that, he shouldn’t hesitate to call for an independent investigation by the FBI’s public integrity unit or the Texas Rangers to get to the bottom of the disturbing claims. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and others on the commissioners’ court should be seeking the same probe and certainly not consider Rosen for the sheriff’s post until they get to the bottom of what happened.

We don’t encourage public officials to cast early blame without all the facts. And indeed, people other than Rosen have pushed back on the lawsuit’s claims, including that the implication that Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg wasn’t willing to get involved.

“The allegation that our office failed to take action is completely false. It’s offensive,” said DA spokesman Dane Schiller. “There was no cover-up, no laziness, no lack of caring by our prosecutors.”

Still, somebody must investigate — other than the department accused. If the allegations don’t pan out, Rosen’s name is cleared. If they are true, the officers’ actions suggest far more than workplace harassment but deeper corruption, potentially criminal wrongdoing and a toxic culture in urgent need of reform.

See here and here for the background. I basically agree with all of this, and I agree that it’s what Constable Rosen himself should want. It’s the best way to get at the truth and have it accepted as such. If Constable Rosen resists this idea, then Commissioners Court should give him a push, or take the decision out of his hands. Let’s not waste time on this, we the voters in Precinct 1 deserve to know what’s going on.

Another deputy constable files suit

More bad.

Constable Alan Rosen

When Precinct 1 Constable deputies accused their bosses of sexually exploiting them during undercover vice operations last week, their attorney vowed there would likely be more allegations in the near future.

On Wednesday, Cordt Akers returned to the podium in the foyer of his Montrose firm, and introduced Pct. 1 Deputy Constable Jasmine Huff. And Huff, he said, had also been sexually exploited during so-called “bachelor party stings” while working on the department’s human trafficking task force.

“She is not hiding behind the anonymity of Jane Doe lawsuit, as is her right to do,” Akers said.

Huff is the fourth current or former deputy of the Harris County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office to say she was sexually mistreated while working on the the agency’s Human Trafficking Task Force. A fifth employee —Jacquelyn Aluotto, who worked for the agency as an advocate for victims of human trafficking — has also sued Precinct 1, saying she was ignored and then fired when she conveyed concerns about the department’s vice operations to superiors.

The suit, initially filed last month, names Rosen, Assistant Chief Deputy Chris Gore, and Lt. Shane Rigdon. The alleged incidents occurred in the department’s human trafficking task force in 2019 and 2020. In response to the initial lawsuit, which raised similar allegations of sexual misconduct and other improprieties, Rosen released a statement late last month saying his office had previously investigated the alleged incident, but found no violations of law or department policy.

In response to the latest accusations, Rosen on Wednesday issued a statement declining to comment on the case because “there is a legal matter pending” and privacy issues.

In an amended 45-page complaint filed in federal court Wednesday morning, Huff’s attorneys alleged that she was a young deputy when her bosses assigned her to the HCCO-1 Human Trafficking Unit.

See here for the background. I’m skipping over the details of the allegations for the same reason as before, it’s disturbing stuff and you can read it in the story. I have the same reaction as before, that this is bad on every level, and even if you believe that Rosen had no direct involvement, this happened on his watch. He’s responsible for that.

Brock Akers, another attorney on the case (and Cordt Akers’ father) also rejected accusations that the lawsuit was an attempt to hamstring Rosen’s political ambitions. Prior to the lawsuit’s filing, Rosen had been widely rumored to be interested in seeking appointment to replace Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, or to run for sheriff in 2024.

Akers called such speculation “flat out wrong.”

“These things happened,” he said.

County commissioners have yet to address the allegations against Precinct 1, or Rosen, a fellow elected official. In response to questions, a spokesman for Judge Lina Hidalgo said she was “aware of these allegations and obviously concerned,” before declining to comment further because of the ongoing court fight.

I have not seen any names floated as possible replacements for Sheriff Gonzalez as yet – I daresay that will wait at least until his confirmation hearing is on the Senate calendar. Rosen would normally be an obvious possibility, and he is known to have bigger ambitions, but again, this happened on his watch. I don’t know how this turns out, but it sure seems like a bad time to be seeking a promotion.

Time for a new Constable scandal

This is super duper ugly.

Constable Alan Rosen

Untrained deputies picked for “undercover” vice assignments — only to be molested and traumatized by superiors. Prostitution stings devolving into “booze-fueled playgrounds.” And a concerned Precinct 1 Constable Office’s employee, fired after she reported the alleged misconduct to the department’s internal affairs division.

Those are among allegations laid out in a bombshell 40-page civil rights lawsuit filed Monday morning in federal court against Harris County, Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen, and two of his top-ranking superiors.

Three current and former deputy constables — and one other plaintiff — alleged a wide array of misconduct at the constable’s office, one of the largest in Harris County, including sexual harassment, sexual battery, civil rights violations and retaliation. The alleged incidents took place in 2019 and 2020.

At a Monday morning news conference, attorney Cordt Akers discussed the lawsuit, flanked by three of the plaintiffs in the case: Felecia McKinney, Jacquelyn Aluotto and Liz Gomez.

Rosen, he said, ran, oversaw, and approved an “ongoing free for all.”

“Senior male deputies were given carte blanche to use young female deputies for their own sexual pleasure on these operations without fear of repercussions.”

Rosen’s office has not commented on the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, the supervisors of the constable’s office’s human trafficking unit decided to change operations to perform “bachelor party” stings. The plan was simple, according to the lawsuit: deputies set up surveillance in a hotel room, and male and female deputies — all undercover — pretended to be partygoers, with some of the female deputies posing as prostitutes, potentially enticing sex workers to agree to sell sex for cash — and quickly leading to an arrest.

Three current and former female deputy constables alleged they were picked for the undercover unit despite being inexperienced rookies. Gomez “was continuously subjected to sexual harassment, unwarranted touching, unwanted kissing, molestation, and sexual ridicule during her work on the Human Trafficking Unit,” according to the suit.

The suit also states the female deputies were ordered to purchase and wear revealing clothing for these operations — only to be kissed and otherwise molested by one of their superiors, and that deputies drank copious amounts of alcohol during the so-called “bachelor party” stings.

Attorney Brock Akers — Cordt Akers’ father and another lawyer on the case, said that the case was unique in the many decades he has practiced law in Harris County.

“I thought that I’d seen it all. I was wrong,” he said. “(Precinct 1) leadership gave in to their own prurient turning the female deputies they commanded into the sex exploitation victims they were arguably trying to save.”

There’s more, and there’s a copy of the lawsuit embedded in the story. It doesn’t get any better, and at no point is the question “why did anyone think that ‘bachelor party stings’ was ever a good thing to expend law enforcement resources on” answered. I’m basically at a loss for words here. Constable Rosen’s office hasn’t commented yet, and I suppose maybe there’s something they could say in their defense that might mitigate some of this, but offhand I have no idea what that might be. Here’s what I think should happen, assuming there isn’t some clear evidence to suggest these charges aren’t true: Constable Rosen and the two other named defendants should resign, and the Harris County Attorney’s Office should decline to take any legal action in their defense, other than to negotiate a very generous settlement. The rest of us should once again wonder what the office of Constable is good for these days, and why we still have them as separate elected offices with their own organizations, instead of folding them into the Sheriff’s office.

(The irony of this story coming out on the same day that the House passed the anti-police defunding bill is something, that’s for sure.)

UPDATE: The later version of the story contains this from Constable Rosen:

In a lengthy statement issued Monday afternoon, Rosen said he had a zero-tolerance stance against sexual assault and sexual harassment “and would never allow a hostile work environment” as alleged in the lawsuit. The constable also said when his internal investigators began looking into the matter several months ago, he “immediately” transferred leadership of the Human Trafficking unit to another supervisor, who is still overseeing the unit today.

He said the court filing was “an effort to impugn the good reputation” of his department. Rosen explained in the statement that when he learned of concerns “by a third party several months ago,” he instructed internal investigators to probe the matter.

“We did this even though no one made a formal complaint,” he said, in the statement. “To this day, not one of these plaintiffs has ever made a formal complaint. Each employee interviewed was given the opportunity, in a safe environment, to express any concerns. Their own interview statements contradict many of the allegations in the lawsuit.”

The department’s Administrative Disciplinary Committee found no violations of law or policy, Rosen wrote.

The full statement is here. Make of it what you will.

Precinct analysis: The judicial averages

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

As you know, I use the average totals and percentages from local judicial races as my go-to metric for determining partisan indexes for each district. That’s because these are two-candidate races, and generally speaking people vote in them on the party label and not on detailed knowledge of the individual candidates. I’ve looked at this data in various ways over the years – in 2018, it was all about undervoting, as my contribution to the deeply annoying great straight-ticket voting debate. This year, I just want to provide as comprehensive a look as I can at what the partisan index of each district is, so without further ado here are the averages and minimum/maximum values for each district:


Dist    Avg R    Avg D  Avg R%  Avg D%
======================================
CD02  180,657  152,260  54.26%  45.74%
CD07  152,705  147,943  50.79%  49.21%
CD08   25,930   14,830  63.62%  36.38%
CD09   37,855  119,136  24.11%  75.89%
CD10  103,043   58,975  63.60%  36.40%
CD18   59,751  178,574  25.07%  74.93%
CD22   21,796   19,965  52.19%  47.81%
CD29   49,285  100,975  32.80%  67.20%
CD36   82,990   47,534  63.58%  36.42%
				
SBOE4 106,801  333,572  24.25%  75.75%
SBOE6 387,513  345,132  52.89%  47.11%
SBOE8 219,698  161,490  57.64%  42.36%
				
SD04   55,837   22,370  71.40%  28.60%
SD06   57,502  117,156  32.92%  67.08%
SD07  236,992  169,822  58.26%  41.74%
SD11   77,482   46,126  62.68%  37.32%
SD13   38,020  158,384  19.36%  80.64%
SD15  114,322  192,386  37.27%  62.73%
SD17  118,535  122,335  49.21%  50.79%
SD18   15,323   11,618  56.88%  43.12%
				
HD126  39,112   33,088  54.17%  45.83%
HD127  54,309   34,783  60.96%  39.04%
HD128  48,197   21,688  68.97%  31.03%
HD129  48,127   34,606  58.17%  41.83%
HD130  70,364   31,748  68.91%  31.09%
HD131  10,092   44,290  18.56%  81.44%
HD132  50,934   47,797  51.59%  48.41%
HD133  50,892   35,660  58.80%  41.20%
HD134  49,172   56,015  46.75%  53.25%
HD135  36,694   36,599  50.07%  49.93%
HD137  10,422   20,732  33.45%  66.55%
HD138  31,922   30,597  51.06%  48.94%
HD139  15,711   44,501  26.09%  73.91%
HD140   9,326   21,677  30.08%  69.92%
HD141   7,106   35,937  16.51%  83.49%
HD142  13,933   41,496  25.14%  74.86%
HD143  11,999   24,126  33.21%  66.79%
HD144  13,786   16,469  45.57%  54.43%
HD145  14,992   26,765  35.90%  64.10%
HD146  11,408   43,008  20.96%  79.04%
HD147  15,323   52,737  22.51%  77.49%
HD148  22,392   36,300  38.15%  61.85%
HD149  21,640   30,536  41.47%  58.53%
HD150  56,160   39,038  58.99%  41.01%
				
CC1    93,365  277,707  25.16%  74.84%
CC2   150,891  143,324  51.29%  48.71%
CC3   228,295  207,558  52.38%  47.62%
CC4   241,461  211,606  53.29%  46.71%
				
JP1    93,441  162,045  36.57%  63.43%
JP2    34,172   48,572  41.30%  58.70%
JP3    51,782   67,626  43.37%  56.63%
JP4   235,236  182,956  56.25%  43.75%
JP5   204,805  212,367  49.09%  50.91%
JP6     8,152   26,921  23.24%  76.76%
JP7    18,654   99,583  15.78%  84.22%
JP8    67,769   40,125  62.81%  37.19%


Dist    Max R    Min D  Max R%  Min D%
======================================
CD02  185,931  148,006  55.68%  44.32%
CD07  159,695  144,247  52.54%  47.46%
CD08   26,439   14,393  64.75%  35.25%
CD09   40,013  116,625  25.54%  74.46%
CD10  105,177   57,133  64.80%  35.20%
CD18   63,096  174,763  26.53%  73.47%
CD22   22,436   19,262  53.81%  46.19%
CD29   55,680   94,745  37.02%  62.98%
CD36   84,840   45,634  65.02%  34.98%
				
SBOE4 117,378  322,667  26.67%  73.33%
SBOE6 401,507  336,009  54.44%  45.56%
SBOE8 224,690  156,133  59.00%  41.00%
				
SD04   56,905   21,704  72.39%  27.61%
SD06   64,474  110,326  36.88%  63.12%
SD07  242,602  164,480  59.60%  40.40%
SD11   79,333   44,482  64.07%  35.93%
SD13   40,293  155,638  20.56%  79.44%
SD15  118,813  187,188  38.83%  61.17%
SD17  124,541  119,169  51.10%  48.90%
SD18   15,619   11,279  58.07%  41.93%
				
HD126  40,053   31,945  55.63%  44.37%
HD127  55,452   33,703  62.20%  37.80%
HD128  49,089   20,798  70.24%  29.76%
HD129  49,387   33,547  59.55%  40.45%
HD130  71,729   30,669  70.05%  29.95%
HD131  11,027   43,306  20.30%  79.70%
HD132  52,228   46,423  52.94%  47.06%
HD133  53,008   34,318  60.70%  39.30%
HD134  53,200   53,340  49.93%  50.07%
HD135  37,600   35,481  51.45%  48.55%
HD137  10,831   20,255  34.84%  65.16%
HD138  32,956   29,493  52.77%  47.23%
HD139  16,700   43,426  27.78%  72.22%
HD140  10,796   20,276  34.75%  65.25%
HD141   7,844   35,148  18.25%  81.75%
HD142  15,015   40,325  27.13%  72.87%
HD143  13,599   22,554  37.62%  62.38%
HD144  14,965   15,326  49.40%  50.60%
HD145  16,455   25,318  39.39%  60.61%
HD146  11,924   42,368  21.96%  78.04%
HD147  16,147   51,800  23.76%  76.24%
HD148  23,754   35,054  40.39%  59.61%
HD149  22,315   29,713  42.89%  57.11%
HD150  57,274   37,933  60.16%  39.84%
				
CC1    98,310  271,971  26.55%  73.45%
CC2   158,199  135,874  53.80%  46.20%
CC3   236,301  201,920  53.92%  46.08%
CC4   248,120  205,046  54.75%  45.25%
				
JP1    99,574  157,709  38.70%  61.30%
JP2    36,841   45,917  44.52%  55.48%
JP3    54,016   65,253  45.29%  54.71%
JP4   240,145  177,376  57.52%  42.48%
JP5   211,698  206,389  50.63%  49.37%
JP6     9,694   25,425  27.60%  72.40%
JP7    19,825   98,162  16.80%  83.20%
JP8    69,422   38,580  64.28%  35.72%


Dist    Min R    Max D  Min R%  Max D%
======================================
CD02  175,786  157,942  52.67%  47.33%
CD07  145,575  154,644  48.49%  51.51%
CD08   25,520   15,264  62.57%  37.43%
CD09   36,275  121,193  23.04%  76.96%
CD10  101,112   61,042  62.36%  37.64%
CD18   56,673  182,314  23.71%  76.29%
CD22   21,218   20,673  50.65%  49.35%
CD29   45,744  105,745  30.20%  69.80%
CD36   81,336   49,507  62.16%  37.84%
				
SBOE4 100,933  342,178  22.78%  77.22%
SBOE6 373,961  359,113  51.01%  48.99%
SBOE8 215,025  167,034  56.28%  43.72%
				
SD04   55,047   23,216  70.34%  29.66%
SD06   53,562  122,474  30.43%  69.57%
SD07  231,452  175,578  56.86%  43.14%
SD11   75,844   48,065  61.21%  38.79%
SD13   36,086  160,806  18.33%  81.67%
SD15  109,597  198,247  35.60%  64.40%
SD17  112,679  127,956  46.83%  53.17%
SD18   15,000   11,985  55.59%  44.41%
				
HD126  38,215   34,107  52.84%  47.16%
HD127  53,344   35,933  59.75%  40.25%
HD128  47,390   22,477  67.83%  32.17%
HD129  46,964   36,012  56.60%  43.40%
HD130  69,298   32,900  67.81%  32.19%
HD131   9,584   44,980  17.56%  82.44%
HD132  49,625   49,260  50.18%  49.82%
HD133  48,359   37,729  56.17%  43.83%
HD134  45,698   59,519  43.43%  56.57%
HD135  35,662   37,653  48.64%  51.36%
HD137   9,997   21,240  32.00%  68.00%
HD138  30,912   31,792  49.30%  50.70%
HD139  14,891   45,442  24.68%  75.32%
HD140   8,496   22,687  27.25%  72.75%
HD141   6,751   36,444  15.63%  84.37%
HD142  13,366   42,296  24.01%  75.99%
HD143  11,100   25,218  30.56%  69.44%
HD144  13,029   17,345  42.90%  57.10%
HD145  14,011   28,167  33.22%  66.78%
HD146  10,824   43,630  19.88%  80.12%
HD147  14,469   53,867  21.17%  78.83%
HD148  21,053   38,031  35.63%  64.37%
HD149  20,955   31,398  40.03%  59.97%
HD150  55,070   40,198  57.81%  42.19%
				
CC1    88,636  283,723  23.80%  76.20%
CC2   146,468  149,847  49.43%  50.57%
CC3   220,181  215,729  50.51%  49.49%
CC4   234,765  219,028  51.73%  48.27%
				
JP1    87,533  168,977  34.12%  65.88%
JP2    32,564   50,632  39.14%  60.86%
JP3    50,336   69,338  42.06%  57.94%
JP4   230,567  188,394  55.03%  44.97%
JP5   197,305  219,993  47.28%  52.72%
JP6     7,269   28,198  20.50%  79.50%
JP7    17,578  100,870  14.84%  85.16%
JP8    66,324   41,925  61.27%  38.73%

There were 15 contested District or County court races, with another 12 that had only a Democrat running. All of the numbers are from the contested races. The first table is just the average vote total for each candidate in that district; I then computed the percentage from those average values. For the second and third tables, I used the Excel MAX and MIN functions to get the highest and lowest vote totals for each party in each district. It should be noted that the max Republican and min Democratic totals in a given district (and vice versa) may not belong to the candidates from the same race, as the total number of votes in each race varies. Consider these to be a bit more of a theoretical construct, to see what the absolute best and worst case scenario for each party was this year.

One could argue that Democrats did better than expected this year, given the partisan levels they faced. Both Lizzie Fletcher and Jon Rosenthal won re-election, in CD07 and HD135, despite running in districts that were tilted slightly against them. The one Republican that won in a district that tilted Democratic was Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap, who won as his JP colleague Russ Ridgway fell; as previously noted, Dan Crenshaw clearly outperformed the baseline in CD02. The tilt in Commissioners Court Precinct 3 was too much for Michael Moore to overcome, though perhaps redistricting and four more years of demographic change will move things in the Democratic direction for 2024. As for Precinct 2, I believe Adrian Garcia would have been re-elected if he had been on the ballot despite the Republican tilt in that precinct, mostly because the Latino Democratic candidates generally carried the precinct. He will also get a hand from redistricting when that happens. I believe being the incumbent would have helped him regardless, as Jack Morman ran ahead of the pack in 2018, just not by enough to hang on.

The “Republican max” (table 2) and “Democratic max” (table 3) values give you a picture of the range of possibility in each district. At their high end for Republicans, CD02 and SBOE6 don’t look particularly competitive, while CD07 and HD135 look like they really got away, while HD144 looks like a missed opportunity, and JP5 could have maybe been held in both races. HD134 remained stubbornly Democratic, however. On the flip side, you can see that at least one Democratic judicial candidate took a majority in CD07, HD135, HD138, and CC2, while CC3 and CC4 both look enticingly close, and neither HDs 134 nor 144 look competitive at all. If nothing else, this is a reminder that even in these judicial races, there can be a lot of variance.

On the subject of undervoting, as noted in the Appellate Court posts, the dropoff rate in those races was about 4.7% – there wasn’t much change from the first race to the fourth. For the contested local judicial races, the undervote rate ranged from 5.06% in the first race to 6.54%, in the seventh (contested) race from the end. There was a downward trend as you got farther down the ballot, but it wasn’t absolute – as noted, there were six races after the most-undervoted race, all with higher vote totals. The difference between the highest turnout race to the lowest was about 24K votes, from 1.568 million to 1.544 million. It’s not nothing, but in the grand scheme of things it’s pretty minimal.

The twelve unopposed Democrats in judicial races clearly show how unopposed candidates always do better than candidates that have opponents. Every unopposed judicial candidate collected over one million votes. Kristen Hawkins, the first unopposed judicial candidate, and thus most likely the first unopposed candidate on everyone’s ballot, led the way with 1.068 million votes, about 200K more votes than Michael Gomez, who was the leading votegetter in a contested race. Every unopposed Democratic candidate got a vote from at least 61.25% of all voters, with Hawkins getting a vote from 64.44% of all. I have always assumed that some number of people feel like they need to vote in each race, even the ones with only one candidate.

I’m going to analyze the vote in the non-Houston cities next. As always, please let me know what you think.

The Harris County Election Security Task Force

I hadn’t realized that this was a thing, but it was and I’m glad it was.

A task force formed to ensure the security of the November election in Texas’ biggest county has found no evidence of wrongdoing after finishing its work.

The Harris County Election Security Task Force was made up of the Harris County Precinct 1 constable’s office, the district attorney’s office, the county attorney’s office and the county clerk’s office. In a report published Friday, the task force said it “received approximately 20 allegations of wrongdoing that needed to be elevated to the level of a formal investigation.”

“Despite claims, our thorough investigations found no proof of any election tampering, ballot harvesting, voter suppression, intimidation or any other type of foul play that might have impacted the legitimate cast or count of a ballot,” the report says.

[…]

The task force operated from Oct. 13 through Nov. 3, which was Election Day, according to the report. Undercover officers made 6,311 visits to 122 early voting and 806 Election Day polling sites. The task force responded to 77 calls for service. And it used four explosive-detecting K-9 units to to make 323 sweeps of polling locations, as well as “continual sweeps” while voters dropped off ballots at NRG Stadium on Election Day. (The task force found no explosives.)

“We all worked together to ensure our elections, which are the lifeblood of democracy, were free and fair and that any and all allegations were thoroughly investigated,” Ogg said.

The report is here, and it’s an easy read. This is good from a pragmatic perspective, in that it was good for the various law enforcement agencies to work together and coordinate efforts, and it was good from a transparency perspective, as each incident is detailed along with the response and resolution. You should read through the incident reports, which begin on page 8 and are the bulk of the document. Incident #2 was the subject of some fever-swamp “reporting” on right wing websites – a fellow Democrat who had come across one of those stories emailed me about it early on, and I noted in my reply to them the various ways in which it sounded like BS – while incident #22 was the Aguirre situation, which the report noted was referred to the DA’s office. The fact that in addition to responding to calls from the public, the task force made regular proactive checks on voting locations to ensure their safety was retroactively reassuring to me. It also had an actual, positive effect, unlike the fear-mongering and snipe hunting our state leaders engaged in. Put this down as another innovation from 2020 that we should keep on doing in the future.

Precinct analysis: Commissioners Court and JP/Constable precincts

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts

We now zoom in for a look at various county districts, which are also called “precincts”. I don’t know why we have County Commissioner precincts and JP/Constable precincts to go along with regular voting precincts – it makes for a certain amount of either monotony or inaccuracy when I have to write about them – but it is what it is. Dems made a priority of County Commissioner Precinct 3 and didn’t get it, but did flip a longstanding Republican Justice of the Peace bench.


Dist    Trump    Biden    Lib    Grn  Trump%  Biden%   Lib%   Grn%
==================================================================
CC1    90,536  295,657  3,355  1,338  23.16%  75.64%  0.86%  0.34%
CC2   154,159  154,516  3,250  1,028  49.26%  49.37%  1.04%  0.33%
CC3   220,205  234,323  4,876  1,328  47.79%  50.86%  1.06%  0.29%
CC4   235,730  233,697  5,338  1,435  49.50%  49.08%  1.12%  0.30%

Dist    Trump    Biden    Lib    Grn  Trump%  Biden%   Lib%   Grn%
==================================================================
JP1    85,426  182,182  3,199    822  31.45%  67.07%  1.18%  0.30%
JP2    35,864   51,624    741    330  40.50%  58.29%  0.84%  0.37%
JP3    53,543   70,746  1,055    375  42.59%  56.27%  0.84%  0.30%
JP4   232,147  199,750  4,698  1,250  53.02%  45.62%  1.07%  0.29%
JP5   199,292  236,253  4,525  1,384  45.14%  53.52%  1.03%  0.31%
JP6     8,554   28,500    357    158  22.77%  75.86%  0.95%  0.42%
JP7    17,977  104,457    835    464  14.53%  84.42%  0.67%  0.38%
JP8    67,827   44,681  1,409    346  59.36%  39.10%  1.23%  0.30%

Dist   Cornyn    Hegar    Lib    Grn Cornyn%  Hegar%   Lib%   Grn%
==================================================================
CC1    94,601  278,805  6,735  3,743  24.20%  71.33%  1.72%  0.96%
CC2   152,772  144,150  6,038  2,703  48.82%  46.06%  1.93%  0.86%
CC3   229,016  214,734  7,608  3,129  49.71%  46.61%  1.65%  0.68%
CC4   241,839  216,469  8,836  3,314  50.79%  45.46%  1.86%  0.70%

Dist   Cornyn    Hegar    Lib    Grn Cornyn%  Hegar%   Lib%   Grn%
==================================================================
JP1    93,109  167,648  4,655  2,101  34.28%  61.72%  1.71%  0.77%
JP2    35,186   48,126  1,638    946  39.73%  54.34%  1.85%  1.07%
JP3    52,663   67,120  2,257  1,121  41.89%  53.39%  1.80%  0.89%
JP4   235,664  186,072  8,077  2,923  53.82%  42.50%  1.84%  0.67%
JP5   205,996  217,791  7,543  3,288  46.66%  49.33%  1.71%  0.74%
JP6     8,342   26,680    795    472  22.20%  71.02%  2.12%  1.26%
JP7    19,157   99,241  2,051  1,291  15.48%  80.21%  1.66%  1.04%
JP8    68,111   41,480  2,201    747  59.61%  36.30%  1.93%  0.65%

Dist   Wright    Casta    Lib    Grn Wright%  Casta%   Lib%   Grn%
==================================================================
CC1    90,035  276,291  7,330  5,863  23.03%  70.68%  1.88%  1.50%
CC2   146,598  145,934  6,329  3,756  46.84%  46.63%  2.02%  1.20%
CC3   223,852  208,983  9,167  5,678  48.59%  45.36%  1.99%  1.23%
CC4   236,362  212,151 10,305  5,711  49.64%  44.55%  2.16%  1.20%

Dist   Wright    Casta    Lib    Grn Wright%  Casta%   Lib%   Grn%
==================================================================
JP1    90,194  163,531  5,804  3,640  33.20%  60.20%  2.14%  1.34%
JP2    32,881   49,373  1,605  1,218  37.13%  55.75%  1.81%  1.38%
JP3    50,924   67,644  2,207  1,398  40.51%  53.81%  1.76%  1.11%
JP4   230,575  183,069  9,233  5,036  52.66%  41.81%  2.11%  1.15%
JP5   200,704  213,004  8,895  5,800  45.46%  48.25%  2.01%  1.31%
JP6     7,490   27,172    730    651  19.94%  72.33%  1.94%  1.73%
JP7    17,970   98,421  2,115  2,039  14.52%  79.54%  1.71%  1.65%
JP8    66,109   41,145  2,542  1,226  57.86%  36.01%  2.22%  1.07%

First things first, the Justice of the Peace and Constable precincts are the same. There are eight of them, and for reasons I have never understood they are different sizes – as you can see, JPs 4 and 5 are roughly the size of Commissioners Court precincts, at least as far as voting turnout goes, JP1 is smaller but still clearly larger than the rest, and JP6 is tiny. When I get to have a conversation with someone at the county about their plans for redistricting, I plan to ask if there’s any consideration for redrawing these precincts. Note that there are two JPs in each precinct – Place 1 was up for election this cycle, with Place 2 on the ballot in 2022. The Constables are on the ballot with the Place 1 JPs. I’ll return to them in a minute.

You may recall from my first pass at Harris County data, Donald Trump had a super slim lead in Commissioners Court Precinct 2, home of Adrian Garcia. That was from before the provisional ballots were cured. There were something like five or six thousand provisional ballots, and overall they were pretty Democratic – I noted before that this almost pushed Jane Robinson over the top in her appellate court race – though they weren’t uniformly pro-Dem; Wesley Hunt in CD07 and Mike Schofield in HD132 netted a few votes from the provisionals, among those that I looked at more closely. In CC2, the provisional ballots put Joe Biden ever so slightly ahead of Trump, by a teensy but incrementally larger lead than Trump had had. MJ Hegar lost CC2 by a noticeable amount, and Chrysta Castaneda missed it by a hair.

Now, in 2018 Beto won CC2 by over six points. Every statewide candidate except for Lupe Valdez carried it, and every countywide candidate except for Lina Hidalgo carried it. Oddly enough, Adrian Garcia himself just squeaked by, taking the lead about as late in the evening as Judge Hidalgo did to claim the majority on the Court for Dems. I’d have thought Garcia would easily run ahead of the rest of the ticket, but it was largely the reverse. The conclusion I drew from this was that being an incumbent Commissioner was an advantage – not quite enough of one in the end for Jack Morman, but almost.

I say that for the obvious reason that you might look at these numbers and be worried about Garcia’s future in 2022. I don’t think we can take anything for granted, but remember two things. One is what I just said, that there’s an incumbent’s advantage here, and I’d expect Garcia to benefit from it in two years’ time. And two, we will have new boundaries for these precincts by then. I fully expect that the Dem majority will make Garcia’s re-election prospects a little better, as the Republican majority had done for Morman in 2011.

The bigger question is what happens with the two Republican-held precincts. I’ve spoken about how there’s no spare capacity on the Republican side to bolster their existing districts while moving in on others. That’s not the case here for Dems with Commissioners Court. Given free rein, you could easily draw four reasonable Dem districts. The main thing that might hold you back is the Voting Rights Act, since you can’t retrogress Precinct 1. The more likely play is to dump some Republican turf from Precincts 2 and 3 into Precinct 4, making it redder while shoring up 2 for the Dems and making 3 more competitive. I wouldn’t sit around in my first term in office if I’m Tom Ramsey, is what I’m saying.

I should note that Beto also won CC3, as did Mike Collier and Justin Nelson and Kim Olson, but that’s largely it; I didn’t go back to check the various judicial races but my recollection is that maybe a couple of the Dem judicials carried it. Overall, CC3 was still mostly red in 2018, with a few blue incursions, and it remained so in 2020. I feel like it would be gettable in 2024 even without a boost from redistricting, but why take the chance? Dems can set themselves up here, and they should.

What about the office Dems flipped? That would be Justice of the Peace, Place 1, where longtime jurist Russ Ridgway finally met his match. You will note that Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap held on by a 51.5 to 48.5 margin, almost the exact mirror of Israel Garcia’s 51.4 to 48.6 win over Ridgway. What might account for the difference? For one, as we’ve seen, candidates with Latino surnames have generally done a couple of points better than the average. For two, it’s my observation that more people probably know their Constable’s name than either of their JPs’ names. Your neighborhood may participate in a Constable patrol program, and even if you don’t you’ve surely seen road signs saying that the streets are overseen by Constable so-and-so. I think those two factors may have made the difference; I’m told Garcia was a very active campaigner as well, and that could have helped, but I can’t confirm that or compare his activity to Dem Constable candidate Mark Alan Harrison, so I’ll just leave it as a second-hand observation. Dems can certainly aim for the Place 2 JP in Precinct 5, and even though Precinct 4 was in the red I’d really like to see someone run against Laryssa Korduba, who is (as of last report, anyway) the only JP in Harris County who no longer officiates weddings following the Obergefell ruling. She’s consistent about it, and acting legally by not doing any weddings, and that’s fine by me as a personal choice, but that doesn’t mean the people of Precinct 4 couldn’t do better for themselves. I’d like to see them have that choice in 2022.

Next up, some comparisons to 2012 and 2016. Next week, we get into judicial races and county races. Let me know what you think.

A closer look at county races, Part 2

Part One is here. As before, this is about taking a closer look at the counties where Democrats made gains from 2016.

Collin County: Our reach may have exceeded our grasp, but it’s important to note that progress was made. A quick recap, comparing 2016:


CD03: 61.2% - 34.6%
Statewides: GOP 59-62%, Dem 32-35%
HD33: 62.6% - 34.1%
HD66: 57.4% - 38.7%
HD67: 56.6% - 39.7%
HD70: 67.1% - 28.5%
HD89: 63.5% - 32.7%

No candidates for District Court, Commissioner’s Court, countywide offices, or Constable. One candidate for Justice of the Peace.

To 2020:


CD03: 55.1% - 42.9%
Statewides: GOP 54-57%, Dem 42-44%
HD33: 59.0% - 41.0%
HD66: 49.6% - 48.9%
HD67: 51.7% - 48.3%
HD70: 61.8% - 38.2%
HD89: 59.4% - 38.5%

Candidates for seven of nine District Court benches (all in the 42-44% range), County Tax Assessor (41%), and both Commissioners Court seats (41% and 39%).

Still no candidates for any of the four Constable races. Hard to say how competitive any of them might have been, at least until a full canvass is available, but in Constable Precinct 3, the unopposed Republican got 115K votes, with 88K undervotes. Given that unopposed candidates always get more votes than candidates with major party opponents, this was probably not far from a 50-50 race. I’d be eyeing this office in 2024 if I’m a Collin County Democrat. Overall, a shift of about six or seven points down for the GOP and up for the Dems.

Denton County: Same basic story as Collin, except that we held the one State Rep race we won in 2018. Here’s the same presentation, for 2016:


CD24: 53.7% - 42.0%
CD26: 65.2% - 30.7%
Statewides: GOP 60-62%, Dem 32-34%
HD63: No Dem
HD64: 61.6% - 38.4%
HD65: 56.3% - 43.7%
HD106: No Dem

One candidate for District Court (36.3%), no candidates for any county race.

And 2020


CD24: 45.9% - 50.4%
CD26: 59.5% - 38.4%
Statewides: GOP 55-58%, Dem 40-43%
HD63: 67.4% - 32.6%
HD64: 54.9% - 45.1%
HD65: 48.5% - 51.5%
HD106: 58.5% - 41.5%

Still just one candidate for District Court, getting 42.6%. Both County Commissioner races were challenged, but still no candidates for any of the six Constable spots. Here I can’t say which if any may have been competitive, as the election night returns don’t tell me the undervotes. No matter how you look at it, you want to get some Dem candidates in these races, to help with downballot turnout.

Hays County: Like Williamson, a flip to Dems, with some downballot success as well. The big prize here was HD45, where Rep. Erin Zwiener knocked off incumbent Jason Isaac in 2018, two years after Isaac had been unopposed for re-election. Rep. Zwiener easily held on against Carrie Isaac, winning with 53.3% of the vote. In 2016, Lamar Smith took the CD21 portion of Hays 53-39, Roger Williams won the CD25 portion of Hays 60-35, and statewide Republicans won with 47-49% over Dems with scores in the 40-44% range. Rebecca Bell-Metereau lost in SBOE5 49-46. There was one District Court race, with an unopposed Republican, the Democratic candidate for Sheriff lost by 13 points, and there was no Dem running for Tax Assessor. There were a mix of Dem and GOP winners, some unopposed, for Commissioners Court, Justice of the Peace, and Constable.

In 2020, Wendy Davis took the CD21 piece 49-46, while Julie Oliver held Roger Williams to a 57-41 edge. (There’s also a piece of CD35 in Hays County. Pound for pound, Hays is at least as sliced up at the Congressional level as Travis County is.) Statewide Dems were now universal winners in Hays, ranging from Chrysta Castaneda’s 49.8% to Elizabeth Frizell’s 53.1%. Rebecca Bell-Metereau won in SBOE5 50.5% to 44.8%. Hays County now had a second District Court seat, won by a Democrat, and a new County Court at Law seat, also won by a Dem. The same Republican judge who was unopposed in 2016 was unopposed in 2020 as well. Dems now had challengers for both Sheriff and Tax Assessor, and while they both lost it was 51-49 in each. Dems had a challenger for Commissioners Court in Precinct 3, losing 52-48 after not contesting the position in 2016. The Dem Constable who won Precinct 2 by 110 votes in 2016 was re-elected by 2,500 votes in 2020. I’d say Hays is a bit like Harris County in 2012, where Dems are the majority but they do better at the top of the ticket, and aren’t quite able to knock out Republican countywide officeholders. There are definitely opportunities here going forward.

Brazoria County: This is more a story of stasis than progress. Trump carried Brazoria County by 29K votes in 2016, and he carried it by 28K votes in 2020. I’d rather go this direction than the other one, but we’re not getting anywhere at that rate. If we pull the curtain back a little farther, here’s the margin of victory in Brazoria County for the Republican Presidential candidate in each election since 2004: 34,758 (04), 29,035 (08), 36,441 (12), 29,591 (16), 28,159 (20). The long-term arc is fine, it’s just slow.

Republican statewides won the county with leads in the 30-34K range in 2016, and roughly the same in 2020. The percentages are closer, because that’s how ratios work, but the absolute difference in votes is more or less the same. That’s why I always aim to report both figures in posts like this, because you need both dimensions to understand what is really happening. For what it’s worth, Sri Kulkarni lost the CD22 portion of Brazoria by 6K votes after Mark Gibson lost it by 14K in 2016, but in the end that didn’t amount to much. I see Brazoria as being similar to Fort Bend twenty years ago, with a lot of work needed to move it in the same direction that Fort Bend has gone.

That’s all I’ve got for this exercise. There are some opportunities out there, but nothing can be taken for granted. Broadly speaking, the key is to run candidates in these downballot races – for one, there’s winnable contests out there, and for two, this is a key component to building a bench of future candidates. And not to put too fine a point on it, but as we have seen in Harris County, having a good county government is a big win on its own.

A closer look at county races, Part 1

In this series of entries, I’m going to take a trip through the local election results pages on some counties of interest, to get a closer look at how they went this year and how that compares to 2016. We know Dems didn’t make the kind of gains they hoped for in Congress or the Lege, but there are other races on the ballot. How did things look there?

Harris County: We know the basic story of Harris County, where Republicans have claimed to get their mojo back. I’m not going to re-litigate that, but I will note that while things were mostly at stasis at the countywide and legislative levels, Dems flipped JP Precinct 5, long held by Republicans, though Constable Precinct 5 remained Republican. Beto carried all eight JP/Constable precincts in 2018, and while Biden only carried six in 2020, there still remain opportunities for Dems to win offices currently held by Republicans in Harris County.

Tarrant County: At a macro level, Dems were far more competitive in judicial races in 2020 than they were in 2016. None of the statewide judicial candidates got as much as 41% of the vote in 2016, while the range for statewide judicials in 2020 was 46.13% to 47.91%. In 2016, Dems fielded only one candidate for a district court bench; he lost by 15 points. In 2020, Dems challenged in 9 of 11 district court plus one county court race, with all candidates getting between 46 and 48 percent. This is basically where Harris County Democrats were in 2004, with more candidates in these races.

A little farther down the ballot, and Democrats flipped two Constable offices, in Precincts 2 and 7. Neither Republican incumbent had been challenged in 2016.

Fort Bend County: We know the topline, that Hillary Clinton won Fort Bend County in 2016, by a 51-45 margin. But there was no downballot effect – none of the statewide Democratic candidates won a plurality (all statewide candidates were below fifty percent). None of the Courts of Appeals candidates won, and none of the countywide candidates won, though most were around 48 or 49 percent. State Rep. Phil Stephenson won the Fort Bend part of HD85 by six points. Republicans won back County Commissioner Precinct 1 by finally running an untainted candidate against two-term incumbent Richard Morrison. Fort Bend was on the precipice, but it seemed like it had been there before.

As we know, Democrats broke through in a big way in 2018, and 2020 was more of the same. It’s not just that Biden carried Fort Bend by over ten points. It’s that every statewide Dem took a majority in Fort Bend, as did every Courts of Appeals candidates and every countywide candidate. Dems did not win back CC1, though challenger Jennifer Cantu did a smidge better than Morrison had done, but they did win the Constable race in Precinct 4; this was an open seat, as previous incumbent Trever Nehls ran unsuccessfully for Sheriff. Nehls had been unopposed in 2016.

Bexar County: Bexar is reliably blue at this point, and Biden’s 58-40 win is almost exactly in line with the October countywide poll we got. The big difference I see between Bexar 2020 and Bexar 2016 is in the legislative races. Phillip Cortez won HD117 back in 2016 by two and half points after having been swept out in the 2014 debacle. He won in 2020 by over 13 points. Tomas Uresti won HD118 in 2016 by ten points; Leo Pacheco won it in 2020 by seventeen. Rebecca Bell-Metereau lost the Bexar portion of SBOE5 in 2016 by 42K votes; she lost it by 24K votes in 2020, which is to say by 18K fewer votes. She won the district by 17K total votes, mostly boosted by Travis County, but she needed it to be closer in Bexar and it was. By the same token, Sen. Carlos Uresti won the Bexar portion of SD19 over challenger Pete Flores in 2016 by 34K votes. Incumbent Pete Flores lost the Bexar portion of SD19 to Roland Gutierrez by 33K votes, and he needed that margin to be as good as it was considering how the rest of the district went for Flores by 23K; Uresti had won the rest of the district by 3K in 2016. However you feel about the 2020 election in Texas, you would feel much worse about it if Rebecca Bell-Metereau had lost and Pete Flores had hung on. So thank you, Bexar County.

Williamson County: WilCo made news in 2018 when Beto carried the county, with MJ Hegar doing the same in CD31. I’ll get to the 2020 results in a minute, but first let’s remind ourselves where things were in 2016. Trump won WilCo by nine points over Hillary Clinton, John Carter beat Mike Clark in CD31 by 19 points, other statewide Republicans led by 16 to 19 points, and Tom Maynard led in SBOE10 by 16 points. State Rep. Larry Gonzalez had only a Libertarian opponent in HD52, Rep. Tony Dale won HD136 by eleven points. Republicans running for countywide office were all unopposed. The one Democratic victory was for County Commissioner, Precinct 1, which Terry Cook took with 51%.

Fast forward to 2020. Biden won Williamson County by about a point and a half – more than ten points better than Clinton in 2016. As with Tarrant County, his win was a solo at the county level, but the Democratic tide was much higher. Hegar lost to John Cornyn by three points, Donna Imam by five in CD31, and the other statewide Dems trailed by three to seven points. Tom Maynard carried WilCo in SBOE10 again, but only by four points. Dems had flipped HDs 52 and 136 in the 2018 wave, and both freshmen Reps were easily re-elected, James Talarico by three points in HD52, and John Bucy by 10 in HD136. Dems lost the two District Court races they challenged, and they lost for County Attorney, but they did oust the scandal-tainted Sheriff, by a massive 12 points. Terry Cook was re-elected as County Commissioner in Precinct 1 with over 57%, and Dems won Constable Precinct 1, while coming close in Precincts 3 (losing by five) and 4 (losing by two). It’s not at all hard to see Williamson as the next Fort Bend.

The point of all this is twofold. One is a reminder that there are more races than just the state races, and there’s more ways to measure partisan strength than just wins and losses. The other is that these much less visible races that Dems are winning is exactly what Republicans were doing in the 80s and 90s and into the aughts. Every election it seemed like I was reading about this or that traditionally Democratic county that had gone all Republican. There is a trend here, and we’d be foolish to ignore it. To be sure, this is happening in fewer counties than with the Republican march of the previous decades, but there’s a lot more people in these counties. I’ll take population over land mass any day.

I’ll be back with a look at more counties next time. Let me know what you think.

UPDATE: While I was drafting this, I received a press release from the TDP congratulating three Democratic Sheriffs-elect, all of whom had won offices previously held by Republicans: Eric Fagan in Fort Bend, Mike Gleason in Williamson – both of which were mentioned in this post – and Joe Lopez of Falls County, which is adjacent to McLennan and Coryell counties to the east; basically, it’s east of Waco. Falls was Republican at the Presidential level, with Trump carrying it 4,177 to 1,899, so I assume there was some reason particular to that race that assisted Lopez in his victory.

It’s a range, not a number

I don’t have full canvass data yet, but as I have said, I have Presidential data courtesy of Greg Wythe. Here are a couple of districts of interest:


Dist     Biden    Trump   Biden%   Trump%
=========================================
CD02   170,707  178,840    48.1%    50.0%
CD07   168,108  141,749    53.5%    45.1%

SBOE6  387,589  367,658    50.6%    48.0%

HD126   35,693   38,313    47.6%    51.1%
HD132   51,384   49,821    50.0%    48.5%
HD133   42,556   46,453    47.2%    51.5%
HD134   66,889   42,027    60.5%    38.0%
HD135   39,345   35,846    51.6%    47.0%
HD138   33,739   30,928    51.4%    47.2%

CC2    153,300  153,394    49.3%    49.3%
CC3    231,808  218,167    50.8%    47.8%
CC4    233,594  238,468    48.8%    49.8%

JP2     51,115   35,546    58.3%    40.5%
JP3     70,725   53,284    56.4%    42.5%
JP4    200,061  235,435    45.3%    53.3%
JP5    233,798  197,420    53.5%    45.2%

So Biden carried four districts in which the Democratic candidate lost – SBOE6, HD132, HD138, and County Commissioners Court Precinct 3. He also carried Constable/JP precinct 5, where the Democrats won the JP race but lost for Constable. He came close in CD02 and HD133, as well as some other places. Biden also lost Commissioners Court Precinct 2 by a whisker. What do we take away from this?

First, a reminder that none of these districts will be the same in 2022. All of them, including CC2, will be redrawn. CC2 was more Democratic in 2016 and 2018, but still pretty close in 2016. I’m pretty sure the Commissioners will have a long look at these numbers before they begin their decennial task.

I don’t want to go too deep into these numbers, partly because none of these districts (except the JP/Constable districts, most likely) will exist as is in 2022, but also because as the title implies, they’re only part of the story.

It is pretty much always the case that there’s a range of outcomes in each district. We saw Hillary Clinton greatly outperform Donald Trump in 2016 in basically every district. It was so pervasive, and in some cases so large, that I had a hard time taking it seriously. As you may recall, I was initially skeptical of CDs 07 and 32 as potential pickups because in other races, the Republicans carried those districts with some ease. Harris County Republican judicial candidates generally won CD07 by ten to twelve points in 2016, which meant that a lot of people who voted for Hillary Clinton also voted mostly if not entirely Republican down the ballot. Which number was real?

We know how that turned out. And in 2018, we saw a similar phenomenon with Beto O’Rourke, who quite famously carried 76 State Rep districts. He also outperformed every other Democrat on the ticket, some (like Justin Nelson and Mike Collier and Kim Olson) by a little, others (like Lupe Valdez) by a lot. Once again, what was reality? Here, I confess, I wasn’t nearly as skeptical as I was with the Clinton numbers. I – and I daresay, the entire Democratic establishment and more – saw the potential in those numbers, but we were only looking at the top end.

That doesn’t mean that number wasn’t real, any more than the Hillary Clinton number wasn’t real. But it did mean that it wasn’t the only indicator we had. I don’t have the full range of numbers yet from this election, but I think we can safely say that the Biden figures will exist in a range, the same way that the Clinton and Beto numbers did. If I had to guess, I’d say that Biden will be at the top of more Republican districts, like HD133, but maybe below the average in the Latino districts. I will of course report on that when I have that data.

So when we have new districts and we know what the partisan numbers are in them, how should we judge them? By the range, which may span a big enough distance to make each end look like something completely different. We don’t know what we’re going to get, and won’t know until we’re well into the thick of the election. It’s fine to believe in the top end, as long as we remember that’s not the only possible outcome. For more on the Harris County results, see Jasper Scherer on Twitter here and here.

Omnibus Election Day post

I was up really late last night, and there’s still a lot of votes to be counted. The SOS website was mostly trash, but a lot of county election sites took their sweet, sweet time even reporting any Election Day results. So here’s what I know right now, and I’ll have more tomorrow.

– The Presidential race is still unsettled as a lot of votes are to be counted. That may take a few days, but indications are decent for Biden at this point.

– Not in Texas, though. Biden was approaching five million votes as I write this, but he was trailing by six percent. The other Dems running statewide were losing by nine or ten. Still a fair number of Republicans who didn’t vote for Trump, and that made things redder downballot than you might have expected from the topline result. In a sense, 2020 was like 2018, in that the top Dem outperformed the others running statewide, but the gap at the top was wider.

– As of this writing, Dems appear to be on track to picking up one SBOE seat (SBOE5), reclaiming SD19, and likely sweeping the Appeals Court races that are anchored in Harris County; I have not checked the other Appeals Court races. Ann Johnson has knocked off Sarah Davis in HD134, and Gina Calanni is losing in HD132. Jon Rosenthal has a slim lead in HD135, while the two remaining Dallas County Republicans (Morgan Meyer in HD108 and Angie Chen Button in HD112) are hanging in, though Button’s lead is slimmer than Rosenthal’s. All other State House incumbents are winning, and all of the open seats are being held by the same party, which means that if all these races remain as they are…the composition of the Lege will be exactly as it is now, 83-67. Not what we were expecting, to say the least.

– Also not what we were expecting: As I write this, no Congressional seats appear poised to flip. Reps. Lizzie Fletcher and Colin Allred were re-elected, and Republicans have held onto all of their imperiled districts. Chalk that up to Trump and the rest of the statewide Rs doing better than the polls had suggested. One unexpectedly close race is in CD15, where Rep. Vicente Gonzalez was only leading by 6K votes as I write this. That said, none of the Election Day results from Hidalgo County were in for that race – all other counties except tiny Wilson were fully reported – so I would expect Gonzalez to win by a larger margin in the end.

(I should note that there’s a dispute in CD23, because of course there is.)

– Which leads to the uncomfortable fact that Trump did a lot better in the predominantly Latino counties in the Valley. I’m not going to get into that at this time – I guarantee, there are already a thousand thinkpieces about it – but the pollsters that showed him doing better and Biden lagging Clinton from 2016 were the winners of that argument. There will be many questions to be answered about that.

– Nothing terribly interesting in Harris County. Dems won all the countywide seats, but as noted lost in HD132 and HD138, and also lost in County Commissioners Court Precinct 3, so the Court remains 3-2 Dem. Note that Commissioners Court does its own redistricting, and after the 2010 election the Republican majority made CC2 a bit redder. I fully expect CC3 to shift in the Dem direction in the next map – it too was made redder after 2010 – but we’ll see how much of a difference it makes. Tom Ramsey has his work cut out for him. One change way downballot was Democrat Israel Garcia winning in the Justice of the Peace Precinct 5 race, knocking off longtime incumbent Russ Ridgway. Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap managed to hang on.

– With 683 of 797 voting centers reporting, there were 1,595,065 votes cast in the Presidential race. Way down at the bottom of the ballot, in the two HCDE Trustee At Large races, there were 1,516,025 and 1,513,125 votes cast, a dropoff of about five percent. I think that should settle the straight-ticket voting question, at least for now.

– Fort Bend County completed its transition to Democratic. All Democratic countywide candidates won, with Eric Fagan becoming the first Black Sheriff in that county. Congratulations to all the winners.

I’ll have much more to say soon, but this is where we are very early on Wednesday morning. Good night and try to remain calm.

2020 primary runoff results: Judicial and county races

Winding things up…

The big, albeit not unexpected, news is that Cheryl Elliott Thornton defeated incumbent Judge Alex Smoots-Thomas, with over 70% of the vote. That honestly comes as a relief. I sincerely hope Judge Smoots-Thomas gets her stuff straightened out.

Tamika Craft led early and by a significant amount in the 14th Court of Appeals Place 7 race, while Te’iva Bell took the prize in the 339th Criminal Court.

Michael Moore was the winner in Commissioners Court, Precinct 3, winning with about 57% of the vote against Diana Martinez Alexander. These are both fine, decent, hardworking people, who ran strong campaigns and displayed a ton of knowledge about the issues and solutions for them. Diana would have been a terrific Commissioner, and I hope she runs for something again. Michael will be a terrific Commissioner, and you should be delighted to vote for him in November.

Good news in the Constable Precinct 2 race, as the good Jerry Garcia has defeated the problematic incumbent Chris Diaz. Sherman Eagleton won in Precinct 3, and Mark Alan Harrison will carry the banner in Precinct 4.

Finally, in Fort Bend County, your winners are Bridgette Smith-Lawson (County Attorney), Jennifer Cantu (Commissioners Court, Precinct 1), and Kali Morgan (505th Civil Court). In the Sheriff’s race, Eric Fagan had a 26 vote lead (out of over 38K votes cast) over Geneane Hughes. That one’s almost surely headed for a runoff.

Runoff reminder: County races

Previously: Statewide, Congress, SBOE and State Senate, State House.

There were a ton of contested county race primaries in Harris County, with all of the countywide offices except one HCDE position featuring at least three candidates. When the dust settled, however, there wree only a few races still ongoing, with one on Commissioners Court and one Constable race being the ones of greatest interest. Fort Bend County saw a lot of action as well, with two countywide races plus one Commissioners Court race going into overtime. Here’s a review of the races of interest.

Harris County – Commissioners Court, Precinct 3

This is the open seat left by long-tenured Steve Radack, which has always been a Republican stronghold but which has trended Democratic in recent years. Beto of course carried Precinct 3, by four points, after Hillary Clinton came close to winning it in 2016. Other statewide candidates (Mike Collier, Justin Nelson, Kim Olson) also won Precinct 3, though the Democratic countywide candidates from 2018 all fell short. It’s there for the taking, but it can’t be taken for granted. The top candidates to emerge from the large field of Democratic hopefuls were Diana Martinez Alexander and Michael Moore. Moore was the bigger fundraiser as of January – we’ll see soon how the current finance period has gone; Alexander’s January filing came in later, after I had published that post. Alexander is a grassroots favorite who has been super busy on Facebook, while Moore has the endorsements of incumbent Commissioners Adrian Garcia and Rodney Ellis, as well as the endorsement of the Chronicle. You can see other Democratic group endorsements on the invaluable Erik Manning spreadsheet. They participated in the first 2020 Democratic Candidates Facebook Debates here. My interview with Diana Alexander is here, and my interview with Michael Moore is here.

Harris County – Constable, Precinct 2

This is the race with the problematic incumbent and Not That Jerry Garcia. The thing you need to know is that in the end, the incumbent, Chris Diaz, was forced into a runoff against the good Jerry Garcia, who was listed on the primary ballot as “Jerry Garca (Harris County Lieutenant)”. Garcia led the way with 39% to Diaz’s 33%. If you live in Constable Precinct 2, please vote for Jerry Garcia in the runoff.

Harris County – Other runoffs

Justice of the Peace, Precinct 5, Place 1: Israel Garcia (48.1%) versus Roel Garcia (30.5%)

Constable, Precinct 3: Sherman Eagleton (incumbent, 47.5%) versus Ken Jones (16.1%)

Constable, Precinct 5: Randy Newman, who doesn’t appear to have a Facebook page (43.4%) versus Mark Alan Harrison (34.3%).

I confess, I know little about these race. Look at the Erik Manning spreadsheet to see who got what endorsements. Based on available information, I’d lean towards Eagleton, Israel Garcia, and Harrison, but please do your own research as well.

Those of you with keen eyes may have noticed there are two other unsettled Harris County races to discuss. Both of these will be decided by the precinct chairs in August. I’ll discuss them in a separate post.

Fort Bend County

County Attorney: Bridgette Smith-Lawson (45.2%) versus Sonia Rash (37.8%)
Sheriff: Geneane Hughes (35.2%) versus Eric Fagan (35.1%)
Commissioners Court, Precinct 1: Jennifer Cantu (41.8%) versus Lynette Reddix (25.6%)

The Sheriff candidates are seeking to replace incumbent Troy Nehls, currently in a nasty runoff for CD22. Nehls has not resigned from his position for reasons unknown to me. I presume he’ll do so if he clinches that nomination, but who knows what he’ll do if he doesn’t. Nehls is awful, either of these candidates would be a big upgrade. County Attorney (and also Tax Assessor) is an open seat whose incumbent has in fact announced his retirement. Commissioners Court Precinct 1 is a race against a first-term incumbent who had ousted Democrat Richard Morrison in 2016. I wrote about all the Fort Bend County races here, and unfortunately don’t have anything to add to that. I’d love to hear from someone who has a strong opinion in these races.

Travis County – District Attorney

Jose Garza (44.3%) versus Margaret Moore (incumbent, 41.1%)

As a bonus, this is the highest profile county race runoff. First term incumbent Margaret Moore faces former public defender Jose Garza in a race that will have national attention for its focus on police reform, with a side order of how sexual assault cases are handled thrown in. Garza has an impressive list of national endorsements, including Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and more recently Julian Castro. Austin has been one of the hotter spots for police violence, so this is a race that could have a big effect on how the reform movement moves forward.

Hope this has been useful for you. I’ll have a brief look at the judicial runoffs next to wrap this up.

The current status on local police reform efforts

Well, the budget amendment process didn’t do much.

CM Letitia Plummer

City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved Mayor Sylvester Turner’s $5.1 billion budget for the next fiscal year, slightly increasing funds for the Houston Police Department even as some cities are under pressure to cut law enforcement spending amid nationwide protest over police violence and the death of George Floyd.

As the council took up budget, chants of “Black lives matter” and “No justice, no peace” could be heard from protesters outside City Hall. Dozens of police reform advocates had asked city council the day before to divert funding from HPD’s massive budget to other services, such as health care and affordable housing.

Instead, the $965 million approved for HPD represents a 2 percent, or $19 million, increase over the current year. The overall city budget is up 1 percent.

The police department takes up more than a third of the tax- and fee-supported general fund, which pays for most of the city’s day-to-day operations. Much of the HPD increase is due to a 3 percent raise for officers under a 2018 labor contract that expires in December.

Turner, who later Wednesday signed an executive order on police reform, offered a passionate defense of the HPD budget, arguing that Houston has a shortage of police officers compared to other large cities. He often has pointed out that Houston, with a population of 2.3 million people and an area of more than 650 square miles, has 5,300 officers; Chicago, with a population of 2.7 million and 275 square miles, has about 12,000.

[…]

At-Large Council member Letitia Plummer proposed an amendment that would cut 199 vacant positions in the police department and redirect that money toward a slew of reforms, including giving the Independent Police Oversight Board subpoena power and boosting funds for mental health units and re-entry programs. Plummer’s amendments failed without the support of any other council member.

At one point, Plummer held up a heavily redacted HPD use-of-force policy, which she said the department gave her office when it requested a copy.

“We started the conversation on police reform. Not one of my amendments passed but I know that I stand on the right side of history,” said Plummer, who addressed the protesters outside after the vote. “That is the most important takeaway. I answer to the people who elected me. I will be holding the (mayor’s) task force accountable.”

The mayor did support an amendment from Councilmember Ed Pollard that would set up a public website where residents could browse complaints about police misconduct. The mayor said the site could work alongside the executive order he signed later Wednesday, and Pollard’s amendment was referred to the legal department for implementation.

I’ll get to the executive order in a minute. I know folks are upset by the failure of CM Plummer’s amendment. It is disappointing, but it’s not surprising. Stuff just doesn’t happen that fast in Houston. There’s almost always a need to build a broad base of support for significant changes, and that takes time. The good news is that CM Plummer’s proposals, especially redirecting certain kinds of 911 calls away from police and towards social workers, has a lot of merit and should garner a lot of support as more people learn about them. Making this a goal for the next budget is very doable, I think.

Now, as for that executive order:

The executive order embraces some measures laid out in the #8cantwait campaign, including: requiring officers to de-escalate, give a verbal warning and exhaust all other options before using deadly force; mandating that they intercede when they witness misconduct; forbidding choke-holds and firing at moving vehicles; and reporting all use of force to the Independent Police Oversight Board.

It also prohibits serving no-knock warrants unless the chief or his designee approves them in writing. A botched raid on Harding Street last year left two people dead, several officers wounded and two narcotics officers charged with crimes. It also has prompted the Harris County district attorney’s office to review and seek the dismissal of scores of drug cases involving one of the indicted officers, Gerald Goines.

“This is not the end,” Turner said, adding that thousands of residents protesting the May 25 death of Houston native George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis made his executive order possible. “In the absence of people that stood up, marched, protested, this would not be happening.”

Several of the requirements — the duty-to-interfere requirement, bans on choke-holds, and prohibiting firing at moving weapons — were already HPD policies, and some experts have cast doubt on whether the #8cantwait reforms have resulted in measurable progress in the cities that have adopted them.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said the reforms were meaningful in that they now are codified at City Hall. A new chief cannot come in later and undo the policies without going through the mayor’s office, he said.

“I think it is a huge, watershed moment,” he said.

See here for the background. A group called the #Right2Justice coalition put out this statement afterward:

“Mayor Turner promised bold reform on policing in Houston. Instead, his executive order on use of force is largely a restatement of existing policy. It makes little meaningful progress at a moment when tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets demanding change. Several of the requirements — the duty-to-interfere requirement, a partial ban on choke-holds, and prohibiting firing at moving vehicles — were either restatements of police best practices or already Houston Police Department policy or practice. Last year, the Houston Police Department forcibly entered a home to search it without warning. Two residents were killed, and four officers were shot. The executive order does nothing to prevent this kind of no-knock raid from happening again.

“The Houston Police Department has killed six people in the last two months. This moment demands meaningful change: new policies to require automatic release of body cam footage of police misconduct and eliminate no-knock warrants, and significant investments in diversion like those Harris County made yesterday. This executive order is not the meaningful reform we need.”

This coalition includes ACLU of Texas, Anti-Defamation League, Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, Immigrant Resource Legal Center (IRLC), Texas Appleseed, Texas Civil Rights Project, Texas Organizing Project, and United We Dream. I checked several websites and Twitter feeds and could not find this statement on any of them. The ACLU of Texas Twitter did retweet Chron reporter Jasper Scherer, who tweeted an image of the statement. I feel like there is room for improvement here.

Anyway. I agree with Chief Acevedo that this means the next HPD Chief can’t just come in and throw this stuff out, and that’s good. But the next Mayor could throw it out, so we need to keep that in mind. A big question here is what happens when someone violates this order in some fashion. What are the consequences, and how will they be enforced? That needs to be addressed.

Also, too, that task force. I saw somewhere, but now can’t remember where, that Mayor Turner expects them to give a report in three months. That’s good, we need to have a deadline and a promise of a report, but that’s still just a starting point. There needs to be a plan to enact whatever this task force recommends as well.

Did you notice that bit in the budget story about the police union contract, which expires in December? That’s another opportunity to make positive changes, as Ashton Woods opines:

Under Article 30 of the contract, when a complaint is filed against an officer, the accused officer receives all copies and files associated with the complaint against them. They then have 48 hours to review the complaint against them, talk to a lawyer, and get their story together. All of this happens before they are required to give a statement to their supervisor. This “48-hour rule” insulates them from questioning and gives cops a privilege that no civilian gets.

Article 26 grants a committee of officers the power to appoint the 12 “independent hearing examiners” who get the final say in officer discipline for misconduct. But these examiners are not actually independent, as half of them are appointed by the police chief and the other half by the union. In other words, when an officer has been disciplined for misconduct and appeals that discipline, these cop-appointed examiners get to make the final call. Because the union gets to pick 50 percent of the examiners, they effectively have veto power. This gives the police union, the most outspoken opponent of police reform, a startling amount of control over officer discipline.

You may have noticed that there’s a huge piece of the puzzle missing: community oversight. While Houston technically has an Independent Police Oversight Board, this board has no subpoena power and no direct discipline authority, making it one of the weakest and least effective community oversight boards in the nation. According to the City of Houston website, the board can’t even take complaints directly from civilians. All complaints are reviewed by HPD.

As noted before, District B candidate Tarsha Jackson has recommended these and other changes as well. As much as anything, the key here is paying attention and making clear what we want to happen.

Finally, there was action taken by Commissioners Court.

Harris County’s sheriff and eight constables voiced support Wednesday for some of the policing and criminal justice reform measures approved by Commissioners Court hours after George Floyd, a longtime Houstonian killed by Minneapolis police was laid to rest.

In a session that stretched past midnight, Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved 10 reform-minded items inspired by the nationwide protests following Floyd’s May 25 video-recorded death, including a pledge to examine how to create a civilian oversight board with subpoena power, adopt a countywide use-of-force policy for officers and establish a database of use-of-force incidents.

Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said all eight constables met for several hours Wednesday morning to discuss the proposals. The group was unanimous in favor of adopting a universal use-of-force policy and sharing documents, including video, to help the county create a public log of violent police encounters.

“We’re in agreement to work with Judge Hidalgo’s group and be transparent and show any use of force we have,” Herman said.

Precinct 3’s Sherman Eagleton, one of two African-American constables, said the group did not come to a conclusion about welcoming more civilian oversight. He said Floyd’s killing had already spurred the constables to review their policies, though the group needs more time to evaluate the Commissioners Court proposals.

“That civilian review board might be a good thing once we find out more about it,” he said.

[…]

During the discussion Tuesday evening on creating a database of use-of-force incidents, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard warned court members they were perilously close to exceeding their authority by setting policy for other elected officials.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo agreed to amend the item to make clear that participation by agencies would be voluntary. She said video footage, however, often is crucial in exposing misconduct by police, as was the case in Floyd’s killing.

“How many times has this kind of thing happened and it just so happens that no one was taking a video, and so we didn’t know?” she said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said he was open to testing the limits of the court’s power even if that meant an issue needed to be resolved in state court. He said Commissioners Court’s passage of the items also could force the elected law enforcement officials to confront those issues.

“We do have the right to put the public pressure on, you got me?” Ellis said.

See here for the background. This is a good step forward, and it clearly does require the cooperation of the constables. As with the Houston items, we need to keep track of the progress made, and revisit these items in a year or so to ensure they have had the desired effect, with an eye towards doing more as needed.

Constable Rosen tests positive for COVID-19

Best wishes for a speedy recovery.

Alan Rosen

Harris County Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen has tested positive for the novel coronavirus, his office confirmed Wednesday.

Rosen is the second local elected official known to have contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. Houston City Councilwoman Letitia Plummer tested positive May 11.

Rosen was confirmed positive on Saturday, five days after being tested while experiencing a mild fever, spokesman Kevin Quinn said.

The constable informed his command staff of his diagnosis but not the public because it was a personal medical matter, Quinn said. Rosen declined an interview request.

“I appreciate everyone being thoughtful and kind with their words of support,” he said in a statement. “In these times, it’s so important to wear a mask, wash your hands frequently and socially distance.”

Rosen has been working from home for 10 days, and any employee with whom he interacted before his diagnosis has been tested, Quinn said. Five Precinct 1 employees have tested positive since the outbreak began here in March.

As noted, CM Plummer tested positive earlier in the month. She hopes to be free of the virus soon, as does Constable Rosen. I wish them both the best.

Runoff roundup

Here, as best as I can determine, are the runoffs of interest for May:

US Senate – MJ Hegar versus Royce West

CD02 – Sima Ladjevardian versus Elisa Cardnell
CD03 – Lulu Seikaly versus Sean McCaffity
CD10 – Mike Siegel versus Pritesh Gandhi
CD17 – Rick Kennedy versus David Jaramillo (D), Pete Sessions versus Renee Swann (R)
CD22 – Troy Nehls versus Kathaleen Wall (R)
CD23 – Tony Gonzales versus Raul Reyes (R)
CD24 – Kim Olson versus Candace Valenzuela
CD31 – Christine Eady Mann versus Donna Imam

Note that Wendy Davis (CD21), Sri Kulkarni (CD22), Gina Ortiz Jones (CD23), and on the Republican side Wesley Hunt (CD07) all won outright. I skipped a couple of Republican runoffs in safe D districts, because life is short.

Railroad Commissioner – Chrysta Castaneda versus Roberto Alonzo

SBOE5 – Robert Morrow versus Lani Popp (R, wackadoo versus what passes for normal)
SBOE6 – Michelle Palmer versus Kimberley McLeod

SD19 – Xochil Peña Rodriguez versus Roland Gutierrez
SD27 – Eddie Lucio versus Sara Stapleton-Barrera

Didn’t mention this yesterday, but Susan Criss prevailed in SD11.

HD02 – Dan Flynn versus Bryan Slaton (R)
HD25 – Ro’Vin Garrett versus Cody Vasut (R, this is Dennis Bonnen’s old seat)
HD26 – Suleman Lalani versus Sarah DeMerchant (D), Matt Morgan versus Jacey Jetton (R)
HD45 – Carrie Isaac versus Kent Wymore (R)
HD47 – Jennifer Fleck versus Don Zimmerman (R)
HD59 – Shelby Slawson versus JD Sheffield (R)
HD60 – Jon Francis versus Glenn Rogers (R)
HD67 – Tom Adair versus Lorenzo Sanchez
HD100 – Lorraine Birabil versus Jasmine Crockett
HD119 – Liz Campos versus Jennifer Ramos
HD138 – Akilah Bacy versus Jenifer Pool
HD142 – Harold Dutton versus Jerry Davis
HD148 – Anna Eastman versus Penny Shaw

Note that in that HD47 primary, one (1) vote separates second and third place, according to the Travis County Clerk. I assume there will be a recount, and even before then late-arriving mail ballots could change this. In the event of an actual tie, there will be a coin flip to determine who goes to the runoff. I’m rooting so hard for that outcome, you guys.

In the HD67 primary, 63 votes separate Lorenzo Sanchez and Rocio Gosewehr Hernandez, or 0.3 percentage points. I would expect a recount there as well, but with a far lesser chance of affecting the outcome.

Lorraine Birabil was the winner of the special election in HD100 to fill out the unexpired term of Eric Johnson, who is now Mayor of Dallas. Anna Eastman was the winner of the special election in HD148 to succeed Jessica Farrar.

14th Court of Appeals, Place 7 – Tamika Craft versus Cheri Thomas

164th District Court – Cheryl Elliott Thornton versus Alex Smoots-Thomas
339th Criminal Court – Te’iva Bell versus Candance White

County Commissioner, Precinct 3 – Diana Martinez Alexander versus Michael Moore

Moore was leading most of the night, but Alexander caught and passed him as final results came in. I don’t care to go through the various Constable and JP races, but the good Jerry Garcia was leading problematic incumbent Chris Diaz going into the Precinct 2 Constable runoff.

Whatever turnout there will be in the runoffs will be driven primarily by the Dem Senate race and the Congressional races on both sides. Won’t be much, but it ought to be a bit more than usual, and surely more on the D side if there were no Senate runoff.

How should we police the police?

This article raises a number of interesting questions.

Kim Ogg

A quarter of the 60-plus law enforcement agencies operating in Harris County have refused to sign agreements to help local prosecutors track problem cops.

Under those agreements, all signed since District Attorney Kim Ogg took office three years ago, 46 agencies have promised to voluntarily turn over information about potentially untrustworthy or unreliable officers. But 17 other agencies declined to sign, a move that forces prosecutors to spend time getting the information through subpoenas and can potentially drag out the resolution of cases.

The Houston Police Department, the Texas Department of Public Safety and Metro Transit Police are among those that signed memoranda of understanding, but all of the county agencies — including all eight constable precincts and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office — declined to sign.

“Based on the County Attorney’s advice, the sheriff’s office has joined with other Harris County law enforcement agencies that are unable to sign the district attorney’s proposed memorandum of understanding at this time,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said in a statement to the Houston Chronicle, adding that his agency still “fully cooperates” with prosecutors by “providing all legally required information concerning all pending cases being prosecuted.”

A county attorney’s office spokesman declined to explain why lawyers told agencies not to sign the agreement, saying the office was “not comfortable” commenting on legal advice given to clients.

To Ogg, that’s all far from ideal: Without an agreement in place, her office must send out subpoena orders to make sure agencies turn over everything.

“It’s a great deal of added work,” Ogg said. “I just don’t think this (agreement) is anything that law enforcement agencies should fear.”

Long-time local defense lawyer Patrick McCann agreed that it was a “pretty fair point” that issuing added subpoenas could be a significant burden for prosecutors, and raised concerns about some agencies’ refusal to enter an agreement.

“It is absolutely indicative of the culture of hiding the ball,” he said.

[…]

The three-page agreement asks agencies to tell the DA’s office whenever a potential police witness is charged with or investigated for a crime, relieved of duty or suspended for misconduct allegations, taken off casework, determined to be untruthful through an administrative investigation, or found guilty of misconduct that could call into question their integrity. Getting agencies to sign the agreement, Ogg said, would reduce work time for prosecutors and ensure that they get all the information they need to turn over to the defense.

“We rely upon the agencies to give us the information that we would need to comply with disclosure (requirements),” Ogg said, “and instead of just blindly relying, we’ve asked them to sign written memorandums of agreement.”

To defense lawyers like McCann, the efforts to create a database and get law enforcement on board seem “laudable,” but he pointed out that ultimately it’s up to the DA’s office as to whether or when to turn that material over. “They’re still trying to keep a stranglehold on the information,” he said, “and they’re terrible about timeliness.”

So first and foremost, why is it that the County Attorney advised the Sheriff and the Constables not to sign this MOU? I would definitely have asked this question when I was doing County Attorney interviews if I had known about this. This arrangement has been in place for five years, though it started with just an informal agreement with HPD. Similar formal agreements exist around the country. It’s certainly possible there have been problems with these things in other places, but what about this particular MOU is troubling to the County Attorney? Surely there’s a way to resolve this. I’d like to understand more about this.

The information gathered via this agreement is compiled into a database, which is not publicly disclosed by Ogg. I can understand that – there are privacy concerns, the unions would surely put up a fight, and the possibility exists that a cop could get on this list as a form of retaliation by their department. One might also argue that a cop should be eligible to come off that list after a certain period of good behavior, and that a cop might have some process to challenge their placement on that list. I also understand the argument for making it public. There’s an awful lot of secrecy that surrounds law enforcement agencies, and if we’ve learned one thing in recent years it’s that such secrecy is toxic. I got an email from a person at The Justice Collaborative a little while ago, sending me their documentation about where Kim Ogg and the two main challengers stand on a variety of issues. They had all been sent a questionnaire, and I was given the responses sent by Audia Jones and Carvana Cloud; Ogg did not respond but where her position was known via public statement or her past record, it was noted. The issue of maintaining a disclosure database and making it public was included in the questionnaire – Jones supported having a public list, Cloud said she would not make it public, matching Ogg’s position. I don’t know enough right now to know how I feel about this, but I wanted to share that much with you.

Anyway. Having this arrangement is a good thing. Getting all 63 law enforcement agencies for Harris County on board should be a priority, with the non-participating agencies made known. Whatever is preventing the HCSO and the Constables from joining needs to be resolved. That can and should be a job for all of the relevant elected officials.

Where the primary action is

It’s on the Democratic side in Harris County. This should come as a surprise to no one.

The crowded Harris County Democratic primary field reflects a new reality in Houston politics: With the county turning an even darker shade of blue in 2018, many consider the real battle for countywide seats to be the Democratic primaries, leading more candidates to take on incumbent officeholders.

“This is the new political landscape of Harris County. Countywide offices are won and lost in the Democratic Primary,” said Ogg campaign spokesperson Jaime Mercado, who argued that Ogg’s 2016 win “signaled a monumental shift in county politics” and created renewed emphasis on criminal justice reform now championed by other Democratic officials and Ogg’s opponents.

In the March 3 primaries, Ogg, Bennett, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and County Attorney Vince Ryan — all Democrats — face at least two intra-party opponents each, while Democratic Commissioner Rodney Ellis has a primary challenger in former state district judge Maria Jackson.

Excluding state district and county courts, 10 of 14 Harris County Democratic incumbents have at least one primary foe. In comparison, three of the seven county GOP incumbents — Justice of the Peace Russ Ridgway, Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman and education department trustee Don Sumners — have drawn primary challengers.

At the state level, Republicans from the Harris County delegation largely have evaded primary opponents better than Democrats. All but three GOP state representatives — Dan Huberty, Briscoe Cain and Dennis Paul — are unopposed.

On the Democratic side, state Sen. Borris Miles and state Reps. Alma Allen, Jarvis Johnson, Senfronia Thompson, Harold Dutton, Shawn Thierry and Garnet Coleman each have primary opponents.

Overall, the 34 Democratic incumbents seeking re-election to federal, state and county seats that cover at least a portion of Harris County — not including state district and county courts — face 43 primary opponents. The 22 Republican incumbents have 10 intra-party challengers.

It should be noted that a few of these races always draw a crowd. Constable Precincts 1, 2, 3, and 6 combined for 22 candidates in 2012, 21 candidates in 2016, and 17 this year. Three of the four countywide incumbents – DA Kim Ogg, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, and Tax Assessor Ann Harris Bennett – are in their first term, as is County Commissioner Rodney Ellis. There are fewer Republican incumbents to target, so Dem incumbents get to feel the heat. The bigger tell to me is that Republicans didn’t field candidates in nine District Court races. As I’ve said ad nauseum, it’s the judicial races that are the best indicator of partisan strength in a given locale.

The story also notes that the usual ideological holy war in HD134 is on hold this year – Greg Abbott has endorsed Sarah Davis instead of trying to primary her out, and there’s no Joe Straus to kick around. Republicans do have some big races of their own – CD07, CD22, HD26, HD132, HD138, County Commissioner Precinct 3 – but at the countywide level it’s kind of a snoozefest. Honestly, I’d have to look up who most of their candidates are, their names just haven’t registered with me. I can’t wait to see what the finance reports have to say. The basic point here is that we’re in a new normal. I think that’s right, and I think we’ll see more of the same in 2022. Get used to it.