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Rockport, Dickinson, Port Arthur: Five years after Harvey

Yeah, we’re at “five years after Hurricane Harvey made landfall” time. Here’s a long story about how three smaller towns that were in its path are doing now.

Each day, Gary Billy drives past the empty corner lot where his restaurant once stood. Sometimes, he looks over at the scrubby grass, the crumbling foundation and the fading blue sign for JJ’s Little Bay Café.

“We put our hearts and souls into that business, into that property — expanding and doing things,” he said. “Sometimes it hits you and you’re just like, ‘Man, you miss it.’ But life just keeps going.”

The restaurant was among hundreds of buildings that were destroyed five years ago when Hurricane Harvey made landfall in this small Gulf Coast city.

Now, residents and elected officials here say they are recovering from the devastation, mirroring other small towns affected by Harvey. That said, they still have more work to do to bring displaced residents back home and get their infrastructure ready for future storms. The city also is facing an affordable housing shortage, a wave of ongoing construction projects and the lingering emotional toll from the disaster.

The Southeast Texas community of Dickinson has its challenges, too. Homeowners there remain skeptical that the city’s mitigation efforts are enough to prevent other disasters.

In Port Arthur, near Louisiana, the largest mitigation projects await federal funding approvals before they can get off the ground.

“The challenge is preparing for the next storm,” said Aransas County Judge C.H. “Burt” Mills, Jr. “There’s going to be one — we just don’t know when. (We’re) trying to prepare to where we don’t have near the disaster that we had with Harvey.”

[…]

The past half-decade has been trying for the city of Dickinson, which saw about 85 percent of its land mass go under water during the hurricane. Some people packed up and left, but most rebuilt, banding together in love of their community. Since then, however, they’ve taken on a particular, more despondent brand of resiliency: They eye the city’s ongoing mitigation efforts and fear that they are sitting ducks.

[Paster William H.] King meets those residents often. Leaving the church that day, he drove his truck through town and descended into the Bayou Chantilly neighborhood, cornered in by I-45 on one side and Dickinson Bayou on another.

It used to be a lovely place — lush and well-kept, homeowner Gayann Corbin said. Now, it’s dotted with “for sale” signs, displaying people’s slow exodus from the neighborhood.

She and her husband, Bob, met King on their corner along with a half-dozen neighbors. Most people in Dickinson know of King, since his church serves about 60 percent of the community and became a distribution center during Harvey. (He was also a city councilman for 21 years, and he’s running for county judge.)

The conversation turned to the city’s disaster response, and the gaggle erupted into overlapping speech. The most visible project to date is the widening of West Gum Bayou and the construction of several detention ponds to expand the capacity for floodwater. They weren’t buying it.

“I don’t have a degree in engineering … but I believe if we had a pump station pumping water out of the bayou into the contributory of the Galveston Bay, that would be better than widening the area,” Arthur Francis said. “It doesn’t matter how deep you have it and how wide it is. The water has nowhere to go.”

The city also is turning to voluntary buyouts and acquisitions, programs that allow it to buy people’s homes in flood-prone zones and either demolish them entirely or rebuild them higher. Corbin and Francis said they don’t expect many people to bite.

Francis said he hasn’t seen Dickinson keep a “pulse” on its people, and Noel Larsen added that she feels the city sat on its hands for years after the storm. In 2019, she saw some of her neighbors remove some obstructions from the bayou in order to aid water flow, frustrated that the city hadn’t done so itself.

Jon Junemann, who has lived in his home since 1975, jabbed his fingers in a fury.

“It takes a quarter of an inch of rain to absorb in this gumbo clay in one hour,” he said. “Where is the water going to go? It’s going to be right here in Lake Chantilly again.”

City Manager Theo Melancon took the helm in 2021 after a period of tumult among Dickinson’s leadership. He said residents in any city tend to feel hopeless when it takes years for the biggest projects to get underway, and King added that he feels Dickinson residents feel a particular apathy toward their local government.

Even then, Melancon said Dickinson officials haven’t been sitting around — they earmarked $70 million in state and federal funds for mitigation, with more in the application process. Already, the West Gum Bayou widening is underway, and about 110,000 square yards of dirt have been moved in ditch cleanups.

Dickinson also plans to construct a diversionary canal that reroutes floodwater and deposits it further east on Dickinson Bayou, and city leaders are exploring a pumping project at Benson Bayou.

“As dirt starts moving and turning, I believe people will see,” Melancon said. “I don’t think a lot of people understand the size and scope of the projects.”

Melancon agreed that the buyout programs might not have enough takers, especially since people worry whether they can find other, similarly priced homes in Dickinson.

There’s a lot more, and much of it zooms in on individual stories. I found the Dickinson stuff particularly interesting – my wife’s grandmother still lives in Dickinson, in a house that was completely flooded by Harvey and has been at least somewhat rehabilitated. I would not want to live there for a variety of reasons, but the concern that people won’t be able to find a replacement house they can afford is legitimate. I have no idea what can be done other than to throw a whole lot more money at the problem. Dickinson is in Galveston County, and since the story mentions it here’s the William H. King III for Galveston County Judge webpage. He’s not going to win, but if you live in that county you should at least know who he is.

A Skeet Jones update

NBC News does us the favor of an update on Skeet Jones, the (allegedly) cattle-rustlin’ County Judge of Loving County.

On a December day in 2021, Loving County Judge Skeet Jones, 71, climbed atop an oilfield tank surrounded by wide-open Texas desert dressed in a business suit and toting a pair of binoculars, hoping to spot an elusive black bull.

What Jones most likely didn’t realize from his steel perch as he scanned the horizon: He, too, was being watched as part of a cattle-rustling sting operation devised by special rangers with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.

The backstory of what led to the arrests of Jones, a former sheriff’s deputy and two ranch hands in May is chronicled in a stack of warrants obtained by NBC News. The documents detail a yearlong investigation, replete with confidential informants and a sting operation involving a reddish-brown cow, her calf and the black yearling bull — all equipped by the special rangers with microchips.

The warrants allege that Jones and the ranch hands rounded up stray livestock in Loving and Pecos counties and sold them at auctions in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico without first notifying the Sheriff’s Office to find their rightful owners — a violation of a state law.

Jones, the scion of a prominent ranching family and the top elected official in this sparsely populated West Texas county for the past 15 years, is charged with three felony counts of livestock theft and one count of engaging in organized crime — potentially facing decades in prison if convicted. (Jones and the other defendants declined to comment. Jones’ lawyer did not return phone calls.)

But Jones’ supporters say he was set up. “There’s no question about that,” said Steve Simonsen, who is the Loving County attorney and married to a cousin of Jones’. “If you’re a special ranger and you’re really interested in stopping rustling, you don’t sneak out in the middle of the night and unload a bunch of cattle that you secretly microchipped,” Simonsen said.

Jeremy Fuchs, a spokesman for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, a cadre of peace officers who specialize in agricultural crimes, said the organization stands by the arrests of the judge and the other defendants. Fuchs said the investigation is ongoing and could result in more charges.

Randy Reynolds, the district attorney in charge of prosecuting felony cases, did not return phone calls.

None of the defendants have been indicted by a grand jury, which is the next step in the legal process. Loving County, the least-populated county in the continental U.S., had 57 residents as of the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimate. Simonsen said the county hasn’t successfully empaneled a grand jury in about a year.

The latest attempt on July 7 to get enough qualified grand jurors failed for two reasons, he said. Under Texas law, grand jurors cannot be related by blood or marriage. And they are required to reside within the county, which has become a flashpoint since the Loving County justice of the peace in May sent four prospective jurors — including Jones’ son and a county commissioner — to jail on a contempt order for allegedly not living there.

“Who wants to show up for jury duty, which a lot of people don’t really want to do anyway, and get a free trip to the jail house?” Simonsen asked.

Jones and his family members — through blood or marriage — have a tight grip on the local government, serving as judge, clerk, county attorney and constable. This fall, Jones is running unopposed for re-election, but some of his allies, including his sister, are facing challengers for the first time in years, amid heated debate over how the county should be run.

See here and here for the background, and be sure to read the rest because as I said in that first post, the word “bonkers” is what keeps coming to mind about all this. Among the things I learned:

1. Skeet Jones’ father, who served as Loving County Sheriff for 28 years, was known as “Punk”. You keep on West Texasing, Loving County.

2. The penalty for killing a stray cow is the same in Texas as it is for stealing one – up to ten years in prison.

3. Nearly twice as many people are registered to vote in Loving County as live there. You should read that story, too.

4. The bit at the end about some other elected members of the Jones family facing challengers in the November election made me want to look at who’s running for what in this famously Republican county, but suffice it to say that the Loving County elections page is not up to the task; Google wasn’t any more help. It may be that some of the characters involved here are still listed as Democrats, in the ancestral way that nearly all of Texas was once Democratic, but with Loving voting 90% plus for Republicans in federal and state elections, that doesn’t mean much. Nonetheless, I’d really like to know more about this.

5. Yes, there were bait cows involved in this sting. Really, read the whole story.

I actually got a press release about this one – I guess someone at NBC News had noticed my previous blogging on the topic. If that’s the case, all I can say is keep up the good work, y’all. I cannot wait till the next chapter in this story.

The national media discovers Skeet Jones

Here’s NBC News with a nice, juicy story.

Lawmen came to remote Loving County, Texas, on Friday to arrest the county judge, a former sheriff’s deputy and two ranch hands on one of Texas’ oldest crimes — cattle theft.

Judge Skeet Jones, 71, the top elected official since 2007 in the least populated county in the continental United States, is facing three felony counts of livestock theft and one count of engaging in criminal activity, accused of gathering up and selling stray cattle, authorities said.

Jones, the scion of a powerful ranching family that settled in Loving County in the 1950s, was booked into Winkler County Jail on Friday and released on $20,000 bond, records show. He did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Authorities also arrested former Loving County deputy Leroy Medlin Jr., 35, on one count of engaging in criminal activity — a second-degree felony that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years. Medlin did not return phone calls, but his wife sent an email that questioned the motives behind the arrests. “We are being targeted,” she wrote, “at full force.”

Officials with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, the lead agency on the case, offered few specifics about the alleged crime. Commissioned through the Texas Department of Public Safety, the association has “special rangers” — certified peace officers — who investigate livestock theft and other agriculture crimes.

Jeremy Fuchs, a spokesman for the association, said the yearlong investigation is ongoing and more charges are possible.

The idea that the judge — who is paid $133,294 annually — would get picked up for cattle rustling was just too much for Susan Hays, a Texas election lawyer who’s wrangled with the Joneses in the past.

“You can’t make this shit up,” she said. “It’s a pain in the ass to round up cattle and take them to market. And then to risk real trouble for it? It’s just asinine to me.”

See here for the background. As a reminder, Susan Hays is also the Democratic candidate for Ag Commissioner.

For decades, a handful of prominent families in Loving County have feuded bitterly for control of the local government, with the Joneses finally largely coming out ahead. Skeet Jones has served as the judge for more than 15 years. His sister is the county clerk. His cousin’s husband is the county attorney. His nephew is the constable.

But some recently elected county officials have been butting heads with the Joneses and their allies, making for colorful commissioner’s court meetings and a much-anticipated November election.

And blood is no longer holding the Jones family together.

“He’s had free reign for the entire time since he’s been the judge,” said Skeet Jones’ nephew, Constable Brandon Jones, who was elected in 2016. “That’s given him a sense of power and impunity that he can do whatever he wants whenever he wants. Even the feeling of self-righteousness. That he can do no wrong.”

When Skeet Jones was sworn in as judge in 2007, most of the caliche roads were rutted like washboards and residents still had to line up to get potable water dispensed from a community tank.

But he presided over a period of unprecedented growth, as fracking boomed in the Permian Basin, feeding money into the county’s coffers. The parched landscape is dotted with massive gas plants, water plants and salt water disposal systems. Many of the surviving working ranches have “frac pads” for horizontally drilled wells that cut through the caliche and bedrock to free up the lifeblood for Loving County’s economy: oil and gas.

The tax base hovers around $7 billion to $9 billion. And the county’s budget has grown from about $2 million in 2008 to more than $28 million.

The salaries for many of the top officials in town — the judge, auditor, treasurer, clerk, justice of the peace, county attorney, constable and sheriff — are $100,000 or higher.

To give you some idea of how insane a budget of $28 million for a county with 57 people in it, that’s about $491,000 per person. The fiscal year 2022 budget for Harris County had an estimated general fund of $2 billion, for 4.8 million people, or $415 per person. That’s less than 0.1% of the per capita allocations for Loving. If Harris had the same resources as Loving, it would have over $2.3 trillion in its general revenue fund; in other words, in the ballpark of what the US as a whole spends in a non-COVID year. As for the family dynamics and the concentration of power like that, well, I suspect we’re just beginning to delve into the plot.

One more thing:

Medlin previously worked as a detective for the San Antonio Police Department, where records show he was issued indefinite suspensions — the department’s equivalent of being fired — three times.

In 2015, he was placed on indefinite suspension for a 100-plus mph pursuit of a driver who had a toddler in the back seat, records show. Medlin was reinstated after an appeal.

Then in 2018, Medlin engaged in another high-speed pursuit after telling dispatchers the driver “almost ran me over,” records show. But body and dash camera footage contradicted Medlin’s account, according to internal affairs reports. He appealed again, telling supervisors he felt threatened, even if it wasn’t evident from the videos.

He was later issued another indefinite suspension after supervisors determined he issued tickets for violations he didn’t witness, records show.

Medlin joined the Loving County Sheriff’s Office in January 2019 and “separated” from the agency less than two years later, records show. (Sheriff Chris Busse declined to say why.)

Medlin also worked on Jones’ ranch before being hired by Loving County as a janitor and groundskeeper.

Forget the Yellowstone-meets-Game of Thrones as directed by early-career Coen Brothers aspect of this, it’s Leroy Medlin that’s the tale as old as time here. The inability of law enforcement agencies to fire corrupt and/or inept cops, combined with said cops’ ability to easily hire on with some other law enforcement agency in the state (there are nearly 2,000 law enforcement agencies in the state of Texas, including as we now know the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, which was responsible for this particular bust) makes for a plethora of opportunities. I feel very confident there’s more to the story of why Leroy Medlin did not stay with the Loving County Sheriff’s Office longer than he did than what we now know.

The AP had a much shorter story on this, which the Chron picked up. I’m sure other outlets, including the Texas papers, will join in, and I can’t wait. Hell, I can’t wait for the eight-part true crime podcast and hopefully HBO miniseries on the life and times of the Jones family of Loving County. Susan Hays is right, you cannot make this stuff up. But you sure can ride it to the end when it happens anyway.

The cattle-rustling County Judge

“Bonkers” is the first word that came to mind as I read this Twitter thread and the linked story at the end of it:

Read the rest of the thread and the story at the end for more. Remember that this is the County Judge at the top of this alleged crime ring – imagine if say, Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough had been busted for running a gang of car thieves. A few other points to note:

– This was not Judge Skeet Jones’ first brush with the law, as noted. In 2016, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct issued a public warning and order of additional education for his role in quashing speeding tickets for truck drivers (note that “CDL” = “commercial drivers license”, so this was for people who drive, usually big rig trucks, for a living). In a sane world, it should have been a political-career-ending scandal, but somehow there he was still in office eight years later stealing cows.

County Judge is normally an executive position, but constitutionally they do have some bench-judge authority, which most County Judges are too busy to do even if they had any interest in it. And also, since I’m sure you’re wondering, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association does indeed have law enforcement authority, which apparently includes a crossover with Oklahoma. The things I learn doing this blog, I swear. Anyway, this is my nominee for most amazing story of the year, and I don’t even want to think about what could knock it off that perch. Many thanks to my friend Ginger for pointing this out to me.

When is an emergency no longer an emergency?

I don’t know, but not yet.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo still has emergency powers to handle COVID, after a proposal to end her authority failed at commissioners’ court this week.

The proposal, by Precinct Four Commissioner Jack Cagle, failed on a 3-2 vote Tuesday, with the three Democratic members voting against.

Cagle sought to end the emergency powers granted to Hidalgo, citing the major improvement in pandemic realities and the court’s ability to frequently and quickly convene.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis called the idea “ridiculous.”

“The mayor will still have emergency powers, the county judges around us would still have emergency powers,” Ellis said.

[…]

Since March 2020, Hidalgo and every county judge in Texas — along with mayors — have had extraordinary ability because of the public health risks of the pandemic to close and open public places, approve contracts and establish emergency shelters, testing sites and vaccine distribution locations. When a disaster is declared by the state — in this case across all 254 counties — county judges are considered the top health official and assume emergency powers similar to those of the governor.

The difference, Cagle argued, is the governor needs them because it would take weeks to reconvene the legislature. Commissioners court can call a meeting in 72 hours.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this, as it was basically a stunt by Commissioner Cagle. It’s not even clear that Commissioners Court could have rescinded the emergency powers, as the preview story notes.

Numerous elected officials continue to have authority under the disaster declaration, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and all county judges across Texas. Under the state’s disaster declaration procedures, county judges in an affected area — in this case all of Texas — have emergency authority. Absent Abbott removing Harris County from the state’s disaster declaration, it is unclear whether Hidalgo would retain that authority with or without the support of local officials.

County judges typically need commissioners’ court approval, but their powers expand greatly as the head of county emergency management. Much of that comes from a 1975 state law that gave special responsibility to mayors, county judges and county health officials.

Exercising the powers, however, is different than having them, some officials said.

“We used common sense, but as the emergency has dragged on I think we have used that authority less and less because we didn’t need to,” said Jason Millsaps, chief of staff to Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough.

Still, Millsaps said Keough maintains the authority.

If literally every other county has retained emergency powers for their Judge, it makes no sense at all for Harris County to do otherwise. When the state and the country are no longer on emergency footing, which is to say no longer feels the need to act quickly in the event of another variant or other crisis, then we can talk.

Initial post-election wrapup

Just a few updates and observations to add onto what I posted yesterday morning. Any deeper thoughts, if I have them, will come later.

– Cheri Thomas and William Demond won their races for the 14th Court of Appeals. I didn’t mention them yesterday, just too much to cover.

– Also didn’t mention any of the SBOE races, four of which are headed to runoffs on the Dems side, including SBOE4 in Harris County. Those were all open or (with SBOE11) Republican-held seats. The three incumbents were all winners in their races – Marisa Perez-Diaz (SBOE3) and Aicha Davis (SBOE13) were unopposed, while Rebecca Bell-Metereau (SBOE5) easily dispatched two challengers.

– All of the district court judges who were leading as of yesterday morning are still leading today.

– Harold Dutton also held on in HD142, but the final result was much closer once the Tuesday votes were counted. He ultimately prevailed with less than 51% of the vote.

– Cam Campbell took and held onto the lead in HD132 (he had trailed by four votes initially), defeating Chase West 52.8 to 47.2, about 300 votes.

– Titus Benton was still leading in SD17, though his lead shrunk from 484 in early voting to 275.

– I touched on this in the runoff roundup post, but the perception that Jessica Cisneros was leading Rep. Henry Cuellar was totally a function of the order in which the counties reported their results. I say this because if you click on the race details for the CD28 primary on the SOS election returns page, you see that Cuellar led by more than 1,500 votes in early voting; he stretched that to about a 2,400 vote lead in the end, though it was just barely not enough to get to 50%. But because Bexar County was first out of the gate and thus first to be picked up by the SOS, and Cisneros ran strongly there, it looked like she was about to blow him out. There are a couple of tweets from Tuesday night that did not age well because of that.

– Statewide, the Dem gubernatorial primary will be a bit short of 1.1 million votes, up a tiny bit from 2018, while the GOP primary for Governor is over 1.9 million votes, comfortably ahead of the 1.55 million from 2018. More Republicans overall turned out on Tuesday than Dems statewide. In Harris County, it looks like the turnout numbers were at 157K for Dems and 180K for Republicans, with about 43% of the vote in each case being cast on Tuesday. Dems were down about 10K votes from 2018, Rs up about 24K. In a year where Republicans are supposed to have the wind at their backs and certainly had a lot more money in the primaries, I’m not sure that’s so impressive. That said, March is not November. Don’t go drawing broad inferences from any of this.

– At the risk of violating my own warning, I will note that the CD15 primary, in a district that is now slightly lean R and with the overall GOP turnout advantage and clear evidence of more GOP primary participation in South Texas, the Dem candidates combined for 32,517 votes while the Republicans and their million-dollar candidate combined for 29,715 votes. Does that mean anything? Voting in one party’s primary, because that’s where one or more local races of interest to you are, doesn’t mean anything for November, as any number of Democratic lawyers with Republican voting histories from a decade or more ago can attest. Still, I feel like if there had been more votes cast in that Republican primary that someone would make a big deal out of it, so since that didn’t happen I am noting it for the record. Like I said, it may mean absolutely nothing, and November is still a long way away, but it is what happened so there you have it.

– In Fort Bend, County Judge KP George won his own primary with about the same 70% of the vote as Judge Hidalgo did here. Longtime County Commissioner Grady Prestage defeated two challengers but just barely cleared fifty percent to avoid a runoff. The other commissioner, first termer Ken DeMerchant, didn’t do nearly as well. He got just 14.3% of the vote, and will watch as Dexter McCoy and Neeta Sane will battle in May. I confess, I wasn’t paying close attention to this race and I don’t have an ear to the ground in Fort Bend, so I don’t know what was the cause of this shocking (to me, anyway) result. Sitting County Commissioners, even first timers, just don’t fare that poorly in elections. Community Impact suggests redistricting might not have done him any favors, but still. If you have some insight, please leave a comment.

– As was the case in Harris, a couple of incumbent judges in Fort Bend lost in their primaries. I don’t know any of the players there, and my overall opinion of our system of choosing judges hasn’t changed from the last tiresome time we had this conversation.

This came in later in the day, so I thought I’d add it at the end instead of shoehorning it into the beginning.

Harris County election officials are still counting ballots Wednesday morning for the Tuesday Primary Election. Despite the Texas Secretary of State John B. Scott saying officials will not finish counting ballots by the deadline, Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria said she’s confident counting votes will be done.

“It’s going to take a couple of days to finish the entire process as we’ve always seen,” Longoria said. “I don’t have concerns about counting the election ballots for this election.”

[…]

Harris County Voting Director Beth Stevens said the paper ballot system slows down the process for both voters and election workers.

“We’re working with paper here, what we know is we have hundreds of thousands of ballots processed accurately and securely here in our central counting station and we’re working with 2.5 million registered voters,” Stevens said.

In addition to voter registration identification mishaps, and mail-in ballot rejections, Harris County election officials also said damaged ballots have become an issue in the counting process. According to Stevens, damaged ballots have to be duplicated before being scanned by electronic tabulators and counted in at the central polling location. Officials said this could take some time.

“There was a negative attempt to make Harris County look bad in this moment and it’s completely unnecessary because we are processing as appropriate,” Stevens said. “Voters can be sure that paper ballots and electronic media that go with that is the most safe and secure ballot in the country.”

And this.

More than 1,600 ballots in Harris County were not read properly by the county’s new voting machines because of human error, the elections administration office said, resulting in a slower tabulation process for Tuesday’s primaries.

The new system requires voters to take paper ballots with their selections from a voting machine and feed it into a counting machine. Voters did this incorrectly in some cases, said elections office spokeswoman Leah Shah, making the ballots unreadable. Instead, those ballots were re-scanned at the county’s election headquarters, an extra time-consuming step.

Shah said Harris County’s long primary ballot required voters to feed two sheets of paper instead of the usual one, increasing the chance of error if they are inserted the wrong way or inadvertently creased or wrinkled. The 1,629 incorrectly scanned ballots represent less than 1 percent of the nearly 500,000 primary ballots cast.

“These are margins of error that are already accounted for, built in to how we process the ballot,” Shah said. “But we also understand the importance of having the paper trail and having that extra layer of security and backup.”

Voter Sara Cress, who ran the county’s popular elections social media accounts in 2020, said the first page of her ballot became wrinkled in her hand as she filled out the second page. When she attempted to feed the scuffed sheet into the counting machine, it would not take.

“I tried it twice, and then two poll workers tried it over and over again, and it just was giving errors,” Cress said.

[…]

Shah said new requirements under SB1, the voting bill passed by the Legislature last year, placed additional strain on county elections staff. She said 30 percent of the 24,000 mail ballots received have been flagged for rejection because they fail to meet the law’s ID requirements.

Elections staff have been calling those voters, who mostly are over 65, to inform them of the March 7 deadline by which they must provide the correct information or their ballots will not be counted.

The issue with the printers is one reason why the new voting machines were rolled out last year, when they could be tested in a lower-turnout environment. Fewer initial disruptions, but perhaps not enough actual testing to work through all the problems. Going to need a lot more voter education, and more stress testing on those machines. The fiasco with the mail ballots, which is 100% on the Republicans, is putting a lot of pressure on the elections staff. None of this had to happen like this. I mean, if we’re going to talk voter education, not to mention training for county election workers, that was a complete failure on the state’s part. It’s easy to dump on the Secretary of State here, and they do deserve some blame, but they too were put in a no-win spot by the Republicans.

As far as the rest goes, the early voting totals were up at about 7:20 or so on Tuesday night. Initial results came in slowly, as you could tell from my posts yesterday, but almost all of the voting centers had reported by 1 PM yesterday. I do believe there will be some improvement with the printers before November. At least we have two more chances to work out the kinks before then, with the primary runoffs, the May special election, and possibly May special election runoffs. Here’s hoping.

Filing update: More candidates than you can count

This headline and first paragraph are short by a couple of candidates.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

A dozen potential challengers to Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo were among the scores who filed ahead of Monday’s deadline to run for county offices next year.

[…]

Hidalgo, who is seeking a second term, faces three candidates in the Democratic primary: former Precinct 1 Constable’s Office Chief of Staff Erica Davis, real estate broker AR Hassan and photographer Georgia Provost.

Nine Republicans are vying for their party’s nomination, including attorney Vidal Martinez, former Army Capt. Alexandra del Moral Mealer, Humble Independent School District board president Martina Lemond Dixon and Randy Kubosh, brother of Houston Councilman Michael Kubosh. The others are Oscar Gonzales, George Zoes, Robert Dorris, Warren Howell and HQ Bolanos.

There are five Democrats running against Judge Hidalgo, not three. Joining Erica Davis on the last-day-to-file train were Kevin Howard and Maria Garcia; I know nothing about either of them. The photos in that Facebook post, plus the 2022 candidate filings album, are the main source that I have for figuring out where the SOS qualified candidates webpage falls short. Chron reporter Zach Despart must have gotten his info from there before the late-filers were included.

There are still some oddities and seeming exclusions on the SOS page as well. I know I saw a Democratic candidate for CD22 on there on Monday, but as of Tuesday there’s no listing. There’s still no one listed for HD22, the seat being vacated by longtime Rep. Joe Deshotel, but local news in Beaumont lists three candidates, one of whom (Joseph Trahan) is the Jefferson County Democratic Party Chair. Jonathan Cocks had been listed for well over a week as a candidate for SBOE8 but is now showing as a candidate for SD08, which makes sense because his address is in the Metroplex city of Allen, and because the Svitek spreadsheet had him going there after pulling out of the Land Commissioner race. Svitek lists two of the three HD22 candidates as the news story, and has the CD22 candidate (Jamie Jordan) as well.

Some other bits of interest:

HD80 was carried by Trump by four points in 2020, so yeah, that’s a big miss for the GOP.

Bryant represented the old CD05 through the 1994 election. He ran in the 1996 primary for US Senate and lost in the runoff to Victor Morales. His old seat was then won by Pete Sessions, who was drawn into CD32 by Tom DeLay in the 2003 re-redistricting, knocking off longtime Rep. Martin Frost the next year. This concludes your history lesson for the day.

Spent a million bucks of his own money to do so, ultimately winning 3,831 votes, or 20.67%, against Rep. Garcia and several others. I suspect Rep. Fletcher won’t have too much trouble with him, but she’ll want to spend some money to make sure.

I will of course keep an eye on that. I’m sure there will be at least one more post in this general vein.

Two other items of note: While Fort Bend County Judge KP George did not draw a primary challenger, there are two candidates vying to take him on in November, including failed 2020 Sheriff candidate and Congressional brother Trever Nehls. Both incumbent County Commissioners, Grady Prestage and Ken DeMerchant, drew multiple primary opponents. Here in Harris County, while HCDE Trustee Eric Dick is one of two Republicans running in the primary for County Treasurer, his wife Danielle is running for his seat (Position 2) in Precinct 4. She will be opposed by Andrea Duhon, the incumbent in Precinct 3 who now lives in Precinct 4 following the adoption of the new map. A bit more than a year from now, we will have between zero and two members of the Dick household in public office. I can’t think of a better place to end this post.

UPDATE: Tahir Javed has withdrawn from the CD07 primary, leaving Rep. Fletcher without opposition in March. I’ll have a post on that tomorrow.

Comings and goings

Rep. Lloyd Doggett will run in a new district again.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett

Longtime U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, has decided to run for reelection in Texas’ 37th Congressional District, opting to vie for one of Texas’ two new congressional districts — a bright-blue seat concentrated in Austin — rather than his current district, which reaches down to San Antonio.

Doggett announced the decision Sunday in an email to supporters and then shared it in person Monday outside Bryker Woods Elementary School in Austin.

“Nobody, me included, has any entitlement to public office, but Bryker Woods does issue reports cards,” Doggett said, “and I’m ready for my neighbors to grade my service in Congress and my devotion to the families of this city.”

Doggett currently represents the 35th Congressional District, which runs from Austin down along Interstate 35 to San Antonio. The proposed 37th District is far more compact, contained almost entirely within Travis County, home to Austin. Both are currently safely Democratic districts — and likely to remain so after redistricting.

[…]

Doggett also survived the last round of redistricting by switching districts, changing to the 35th District, which was new at the time. It was drawn to be a Hispanic-majority district, and Doggett faced a primary against then state Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio. But Castro ultimately ran for the San Antonio-based 20th Congressional District after its Democratic incumbent, Charlie Gonzalez, announced his retirement.

Doggett’s chances of reelection in the new district are high. He has served in Congress since 1995 and a built a massive campaign war chest, totaling $5.4 million as of Sept. 30.

Doggett’s decision to run in CD-37 means there will be an open seat in CD-35.

Potential Democratic candidates for the 37th District have included state Rep. Gina Hinojosa of Austin and Wendy Davis, the former Fort Worth state senator and 2014 gubernatorial nominee who unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, last year.

Doggett was first elected in what was then CD10. In the DeLay re-redistricting of 2003, he moved to what was then CD25, then into CD35 as noted. I’m just going to leave this here:

Someone needs to start a project to track down everyone who has been continuously represented by Lloyd Doggett since 1995.

Rep. Doggett may or may not get some real competition for CD37. I’d make him a heavy favorite against pretty much anyone. As for CD35, that will likely draw a crowd.

Progressive firebrand and Austin City Council Member Greg Casar is likely to run for Congress in Texas’s 35th District, he told the Texas Observer in an interview.

“It’s very likely that I’m running,” says Casar, who has formed an exploratory committee to examine a run for the district that runs from Austin to San Antonio. “The maps haven’t been signed into law yet, but shortly after they are, I will make things much more official.”

[…]

The prospect of a newly open seat in a heavily Democratic majority-minority district sets the stage for a potential primary battle.

State Representative Eddie Rodriguez, who’s served in the Legislature since 2003, is reportedly “taking a hard look” at a run for the 35th; his southeast Austin state House district sits almost entirely within the new 35th boundaries. Also, longtime San Antonio Representative Trey Martinez Fischer requested that lawmakers draw him into the 35th, indicating that he may also run. Claudia Zapata, a progressive activist in Austin, is currently the only officially declared candidate. Casar’s home and his north-central council district are in the 37th, right along the border with the 35th.

That story is all about CM Casar, and you can read it if you want to know more about him. I’m mostly interested in the name game at this point.

Moving along, we will have a new open State House seat in Bexar County.

State Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, who bucked his party on a number of major issues this year, announced Wednesday he will not seek reelection.

In an email to constituents, Larson said he was following through on legislation he has repeatedly introduced that imposes a term limit of 12 years on any elected official at the state level.

“As a strong proponent of term limits, will follow the limits we previously proposed in this legislation,” Larson wrote.

Larson was first elected in 2010 to represent House District 122 in the San Antonio area.

He had been increasingly expected to pass on a 2022 reelection campaign as he grew disillusioned with his party and potential GOP candidates lined up for his seat. Larson was the only Republican to oppose the GOP’s priority elections bill that led House Democrats to break quorum this summer. He also was the only Republican to vote against legislation that Republican supporters argued would crack down on the teaching of critical race theory in Texas classrooms. More recently, he filed a long-shot bill during the current special session to provide rape and incest exemptions for Texas’ new near-total abortion ban, despite previously voting for it.

Rep. Larson, who had been targeted by Greg Abbott in the 2018 primary, was sure to draw challengers this primary as well. He’s also now got his 12 years in, which means he’s fully vested in the pension. That’s always a propitious time to pull the plug. As noted before the current HD122, which began the decade as the most Republican district in Bexar County, has moved sharply towards Democrats. It was also significantly changed in redistricting, and was made more red than it had been in 2020, but could still be competitive in the near future. Maybe if a more wingnutty Republican wins, that timetable could move up.

Also moving districts due to the new map:

State Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, announced Wednesday he is moving to run for reelection in a different House district because his current district is being redrawn to be more favorable to Republicans.

Talarico said he would run in nearby House District 50, where the Democratic incumbent, Celia Israel, is not seeking reelection as she prepares to run for Austin mayor. He announced the new campaign with the support of the biggest names in Democratic politics in Texas, including Beto O’Rourke, Wendy Davis and Joaquin Castro.

Talarico currently represents House District 52, which is set to become redder in redistricting — going from a district that President Joe Biden won by 10 percentage points to one that Donald Trump would have carried by 4. HD-50, meanwhile, is likely to remain solidly blue after redistricting.

[…]

Whether Talarico can avoid a competitive primary for HD-50 is an open question. Earlier Wednesday, Pflugerville City Councilman Rudy Metayer announced he was exploring a run for the seat. Metayer is also the president of the Texas Black Caucus Foundation, and he released a list of supporters topped by two of the state’s most prominent Black politicians, state Sens. Borris Miles of Houston and Royce West of Dallas.

HD-50 is more diverse than the district Talarico, who is white, currently represents. In a series of tweets announcing his new campaign, Talarico prominently highlighted how he “call[s] out White supremacy on the floor,” a reference to his outspoken advocacy against Republican legislation aiming to restrict the teaching of “critical race theory” in Texas classrooms.

Talarico was part of the over 50 House Democrats who broke quorum this summer in protest of the GOP’s priority elections bill, though he was part of the first several to return, causing friction with some in his own party.

See here for more on Rep. Israel. I have to think that HD52 will still be attractive to someone on the Democratic side; that person may have a harder time of it than Rep. Talarico, but a 4-point Trump district is hardly insurmountable, and I’d bet on further change in a Dem direction. As for Talarico, I’ll be very interested to see how big a deal his coming back in the first wave from the quorum break is in his primary. I’m sure the subject will come up.

Closer to home:

State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, announced Tuesday he will not seek another term to the Texas House.

Huberty, who has represented House District 127 since 2011, said in a statement that “it is time for new opportunities in life.”

“I have thought long and hard about this decision,” Huberty said. “It’s been an honor to represent the people and communities of District 127 at the Texas Capitol, and I’m proud of the work our team has accomplished.”

During the 2019 legislative session, Huberty helped spearhead reforms to the state’s school finance system, which included $6.5 billion to improve public education in the state and pay teachers, plus $5.1 billion to lower school district taxes.

Huberty said Tuesday that his “interest in and passion for public education remains at my core” and said he believed that the school finance reform legislation from 2019 “will have a lasting impact for the school children of Texas for a long time to come.”

Another fully-vested-in-the-pension guy. Funny how those things work out. Rep. Huberty, like several of his colleagues, is one of those increasingly rare serious-about-policy types, who has done some good work with public education. As his district remains pretty solidly Republican, at least in the foreseeable future, the best we can hope for is someone who isn’t a total clown emerging from the Republican primary. Say a few Hail Marys and toss some salt over your shoulder.

And speaking of Republicans with policy chops, this was not unexpected but is still bad.

Amarillo state Sen. Kel Seliger, a Republican who often butted heads with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and was known to be a key swing vote for his party, will not seek reelection.

“After thoughtful consideration and with the reassurance of my family, including my new very vocal granddaughter, I have decided not to be a candidate for re-election to the Texas Senate,” Seliger said in a statement. “I am forever grateful for my family, supporters, staff, and those who. have worked on my behalf since 2004. Thank you for placing your trust in me as your Texas State Senator.”

Seliger said he will serve out the remainder of his term, which ends in January 2023. He has represented Senate District 31, which covers the Panhandle, South Plains and the Permian Basin, since 2005. Prior to that, he served four terms as mayor of Amarillo.

In the Legislature, Seliger was known as an advocate issues of public education, higher education and local control. He led the Senate Higher Education Committee for three sessions between 2013 and 2017. But as parts of the Republican Party in Texas shifted toward support of private school vouchers and against policies passed in Democrat-leaning municipalities, Seliger was often criticized for not supporting those stances and derided as a “liberal.”

[…]

As recently as Monday, Seliger was still breaking with Republican leadership in what he said was deference to his constituents. He was one of the only Republicans in office who openly opposed legislation to ban employers from requiring COVID-19 vaccines, saying the proposal, pushed by Gov. Greg Abbott, was “anti-business.” Earlier in the 30-day special session, Seliger was the sole GOP vote in the Senate against a bill that would clear the way for party officials to trigger election audits. Seliger reportedly said he opposed the legislation because it is an “unfunded mandate of the counties, and I’m opposed to big government.”

His maverick streak led to frequent conflict with Patrick, a conservative firebrand who presides over the Senate. In 2017, Seliger voted against two of Patrick’s legislative priorities: a bill restricting local governments’ abilities to raise property tax revenues and another one providing private school vouchers. The next session, Patrick stripped Seliger of his chairmanship of the Higher Education Committee prompting a back and forth with Patrick’s office that escalated to Seliger issuing a recommendation that a top Patrick adviser kiss his “back end.” (Seliger ultimately apologized, but only for directing the comment at the adviser and not at Patrick himself.)

There used to be a lot of Kel Seligers in the State Senate, and in the Republican Party. Now they run the gamut from Joan Huffman to Bob Hall, and the next person to be elected in SD31 is almost certainly going to be on the Bob Hall end of that spectrum. We sure better hope we can beat Dan Patrick next year.

Finally, here’s a non-legislative vacancy that may have an effect on the House delegation in 2023.

The race for Bexar County judge is wide open as the 2022 election approaches.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff confirmed last week that he would not seek reelection next year. Wolff has served as the county’s leader since 2001. Local political scientists say they expect a packed Democratic primary, though the number of officially declared candidates currently sits at zero.

So far, only state Rep. Ina Minjarez has publicly announced interest in the seat; she tweeted that she was exploring a run after Wolff announced his decision not to run again.

“I’ve received countless calls from community members for me to consider running for Bexar County Judge; with today’s news I’ve decided to form an exploratory committee,” she wrote on Oct. 6.

Rep. Minjarez was the only legislator mentioned in that story, but County Judge is a pretty good gig, so others may check this out. Being a County Judge is also a decent stepping stone to higher office, if that’s on one’s path. I will keep an eye on that.

With the mapmaking done, I expect we’ll start to hear about more people getting in, getting out, and moving over. And the January finance reports are going to tell us a lot. Stay tuned.

Betsy Price to run for Tarrant County Judge

I don’t usually pay much attention to county races outside the Houston area, but there are some points of interest to discuss about this.

Betsy Price

Outgoing Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price is running for Tarrant County judge in 2022, attempting a swift return to power in one of the state’s most politically important areas.

Price revealed the decision in interviews with North Texas TV stations that published Thursday morning, telling WFAA that she would make a formal announcement later.

“I promised my family I’d take a month or two off,” Price told WFAA. “I’m just getting this out there softly.”

The news of Price’s decision comes two days after the current county judge, Republican Glen Whitley, announced he would not run for reelection. He has since 2007 been at the helm of the county, the third most populous in the state and a historically Republican place where Democrats have been making inroads recently.

[…]

Price will not be unopposed in the March primary for county judge. Before Whitley made his retirement official, Tim O’Hare, former chairman of the county Republican Party, announced he was running for county judge. He launched with a list of GOP endorsements including current county GOP Chairman Rick Barnes, county Sheriff Bill Waybourn, and five state representatives from the area. O’Hare has since rolled out endorsements from U.S. Reps. Beth Van Duyne of Irving and Michael Burgess of Lewisville.

While Democrats do not have any known candidates for county judge yet, they can be expected to seriously contest the race after the county went their way at the top of the ticket in the last two statewide elections. The Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in 2018, Beto O’Rourke, won the county, while President Joe Biden carried it two years later.

Here are the Tarrant County election results for 2018 and 2020. It’s widely noted that Beto O’Rourke carried Tarrant in 2018 (by a 49.93% to 49.24% margin) and Joe Biden carried it in 2020 (49.31% to 49.09%), becoming the first Dems in however long to do so. They were also the only Dems to do so. The other statewide candidates in 2018 lost by a range from one point (Justin Nelson) to ten points (Lupe Valdez), while the handful of countywide candidates all lost by about five points. This includes Lawrence Meyers (I assume the former Court of Criminal Appeals justice), who lost to now-outgoing County Judge Whitley by six points.

In 2020, the statewide Dems trailed in Tarrant by four to six points, with countywide candidates losing by six or seven points. One difference between 2018 and 2020 is that in 2018 there were literally no Democrats running for district court positions, while in 2020 there was a Dem in all but two of those races. My assumption is that the Dems will have a full slate of judicial candidates as in 2020 – there’s nothing like the hope of winning to generate that kind of interest.

We used to talk about Tarrant County as a proxy for Texas as a whole electorally. I’ve posted before about how the Presidential results in Tarrant almost eerily echoed the statewide results. That was true from 2004 through 2016, but the Beto breakthrough in 2018 was a sign that things were changing, and indeed Tarrant’s Presidential result in 2020 was several points to the left of the state’s. The county that most closely mirrored the statewide Presidential result in 2020 was Zapata, carried by Trump 52.5% to 47.1%. The closest big counties were Collin, slightly to the left at 51.4% to 47.1%, and Denton, slightly to the right at 53.2% to 45.2%.

Tarrant may have been too Democratic at the top level to be a statewide predictor, but at the District Court level they were much closer to the mark, with results ranging from 52.9% to 47.1% on one end to 53.9% to 46.1% on the other. What this reminds me of is Harris County in 2004, where District Court challengers got between 45.8% and 47.9% of the vote. That doesn’t mean anything for the path Tarrant County is on – Harris did shift a little towards Dems in 2006 before the 2008 breakthrough, in conditions that were very different from what we have now – it’s just an observation.

Finally, I don’t know anything about the other contenders for the GOP nomination for County Judge, but it’s plausible to me that someone like Betsy Price, a known quantity with a low-key style, might perform better against the partisan average than a more Trumpified Republican. Again, I don’t know the players and don’t know how that primary might shape up, but it seems highly unlikely to me that there won’t be a significant pro-Trump presence in that race. Trump is one of the two Republicans to lose Tarrant County since 2018. Make of that what you will.

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.

Not so open meetings

We’ll have to see how big a deal this is.

In a major blow to the state’s government transparency laws, Texas’ highest criminal court has struck down a significant provision of the Texas Open Meetings Act, calling it “unconstitutionally vague.”

That law, which imposes basic requirements providing for public access to and information about governmental meetings, makes it a crime for public officials to “knowingly [conspire] to circumvent this chapter by meeting in numbers less than a quorum for the purpose of secret deliberations.” That provision aims to keep public officials from convening smaller meetings — without an official quorum present — to discuss public business outside the view of the taxpayers and the media.

Craig Doyal, the Montgomery County judge, was indicted under that statute for allegedly conducting “secret deliberations” — without a quorum of the commissioners court present — about a November 2015 county road bond. Doyal filed to have the charges dismissed, claiming the statute was unconstitutional. The case eventually made it to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which handed him a victory Wednesday. Two judges on the nine-member, all-Republican court dissented.

“We do not doubt the legislature’s power to prevent government officials from using clever tactics to circumvent the purpose and effect of the Texas Open Meetings Act,” Presiding Judge Sharon Keller wrote for the majority. “But the statute before us wholly lacks any specificity, and any narrowing construction we could impose would be just a guess, an imposition of our own judicial views. This we decline to do.”

Attorneys for Doyal argued months ago that the case should not be interpreted as a broad “take-down of the entire Texas Open Meetings Act.”

“This case is not about discussions of public matters in a quorum,” they wrote in a July 2018 brief. “This case is not about shutting out the public and the press from the political process.”

But open government advocates warned that the ruling, while specific to one slice of the open meetings act, importantly undermines its aims.

“I’m disappointed in the ruling,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “Some people will use it as a chance to try to get around the spirit of the law. But the vast majority of people want to follow the law and want the public to understand government and participate in government. The vast majority of public officials know they can’t go around in secret and deliberate.”

See here for a bit of background on the Doyal case. I don’t know about you, but I have always assumed that Sharon Keller imposes her own judicial views on every appeal she hears. Be that as it may, my first thought on reading this story was whether it might have an effect on the accusations against five HISD trustees who are alleged to have formed a “walking quorum” and met illegally to discuss replacing Superintendent Grenita Lathan. That charge, if justified, represents another reason for the TEA to take over HISD. Unless, I presume, it turns out that what they allegedly did wasn’t actually illegal. As of yesterday, that was unclear.

The ruling could impact the Texas Education Agency’s investigation into allegations of Open Meetings Act violations by some members of the Houston ISD Board of Trustees.

TEA officials are investigating whether five trustees illegally coordinated ahead of an October 2018 vote to oust Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, who took over the position indefinitely in March 2018. The five trustees each spoke with Lathan’s chosen replacement, Abelardo Saavedra, prior to the vote. Some trustees have said they communicated with one other board member about a potential motion to remove Lathan.

Trustees ultimately voted 5-4 to replace Lathan with Saavedra, but they reversed the decision several days later following intense public backlash and Saavedra’s decision to back out of the job. Saavedra told the Houston Chronicle he quickly discovered HISD’s issues stemmed from the school board, as opposed to Lathan’s administration.

TEA opened a special accreditation investigation in January after receiving “multiple complaints” about violations of the Open Meetings Act. TEA leaders said they are investigating whether trustees were “deliberating district business prior to a regularly scheduled board meeting,” regarding Lathan’s removal.

While the notice alludes to misconduct described in the same statute that was overturned Wednesday, TEA officials did not indicate they are investigating HISD based on that statute. Rather, the TEA notice lists the entire chapter of open meetings laws, leaving it unclear whether the investigation rested entirely on the now-invalidated statute.

TEA officials declined to comment Wednesday “due to the open investigation.”

I Am Not A Lawyer and am thus not qualified to assess that possibility, but as a blogger I’m fully capable of speculating about it. My point is that this ruling may well have some odd and unexpected consequences. Greg Abbott says he wants state agencies to “continue to follow the spirit of the law”, whatever that means. I expect that would eventually lead to more litigation, until or unless the Lege fixes the law to satisfy this ruling. Anything is possible, but I tend to bet the under in these matters. Welcome to the mostly post-Open Meetings Act world that we now live in. The Observer has more.

Precinct analysis: Fort Bend

Did you know that Fort Bend County went blue in 2018 as well? Of course you did. Let’s take a closer look at how that happened.


Dist     Cruz   Beto Dikeman    Cruz%   Beto%    Dike%
======================================================
HD26   32,451  33,532    406   48.88%   50.51%   0.61%
HD27   17,563  47,484    348   26.86%   72.61%   0.53%
HD28   42,974  40,330    581   51.23%   48.08%   0.69%
HD85   18,435  21,053    281   46.36%   52.94%   0.71%

CC1    27,497  28,827    359   48.51%   50.86%   0.63%
CC2    11,238  40,905    263   21.44%   78.05%   0.50%
CC3    42,882  33,373    544   55.84%   43.45%   0.71%
CC4    29,806  39,294    450   42.86%   56.50%   0.65%

As a reminder, HD85 is only partially in Fort Bend. It also covers Wharton and Jackson counties, which are both red and which are the reason this district is not as competitive as it might look. The other three State Rep districts are fully within Fort Bend. The bottom four entries are for the four County Commissioner precincts.

For comparison, here are the 2016 data for the County Commissioner precincts and for the State Rep districts. Beto, as is the case pretty much everywhere we look, outperformed the 2016 baseline everywhere. In 2016, HD26 was won by Donald Trump by five points and by downballot Republicans by 15 points. In 2016, County Commissioner Precinct 1 was won by Trump by three points and downballot Republicans by ten or so, while Precinct 4 was won by Hillary Clinton by six points but by downballot Republicans also by six points. Trump won CC3 by 19 points and HD28 by ten points. All this happened while Clinton carried Fort Bend. Anyone still surprised that Dems swept FBC this year?


Dist   Abbott  Valdez Tippts  Abbott%  Valdez%   Tipp%
======================================================
HD26   36,516  28,762    898   55.18%   43.46%   1.36%
HD27   21,429  42,795    975   32.87%   65.64%   1.50%
HD28   47,549  35,016  1,213   56.76%   41.80%   1.45%
HD85   20,373  18,801    527   51.32%   47.36%   1.33%

CC1    30,249  25,584    779   53.43%   45.19%   1.38%
CC2    14,099  37,443    728   26.97%   71.63%   1.39%
CC3    47,081  28,501  1,129   61.37%   37.15%   1.47%
CC4    34,438  33,846    977   49.72%   48.87%   1.41%


Dist  Patrick Collier  McKen Patrick% Collier%  McKen%
======================================================
HD26   33,307  31,571  1,091   50.49%   47.86%   1.65%
HD27   18,455  45,617  1,018   28.35%   70.08%   1.56%
HD28   43,848  38,174  1,496   52.50%   45.71%   1.79%
HD85   18,824  20,025    685   47.61%   50.65%   1.73%

CC1    27,935  27,510    968   49.52%   48.77%   1.72%
CC2    11,979  39,438    796   22.94%   75.53%   1.52%
CC3    43,517  31,523  1,419   56.92%   41.23%   1.86%
CC4    31,003  36,916  1,107   44.91%   53.48%   1.60%


Dist   Paxton  Nelson Harris  Paxton%  Nelson% Harris%
======================================================
HD26   32,377  32,192  1,246   49.19%   48.91%   1.89%
HD27   17,454  46,307  1,249   26.85%   71.23%   1.92%
HD28   42,892  38,800  1,700   51.43%   46.53%   2.04%
HD85   18,234  20,455    775   46.20%   51.83%   1.96%
						
CC1    27,165  28,003  1,142   48.24%   49.73%   2.03%
CC2    11,271  39,983    915   21.60%   76.64%   1.75%
CC3    42,689  32,005  1,620   55.94%   41.94%   2.12%
CC4    29,832  37,763  1,293   43.31%   54.82%   1.88%


Dist    Hegar    Chev   Sand   Hegar%    Chev%   Sand%
======================================================
HD26   34,744  29,182  1,566   53.05%   44.56%   2.39%
HD27   18,579  44,486  1,690   28.69%   68.70%   2.61%
HD28   45,403  35,587  2,176   54.59%   42.79%   2.62%
HD85   19,151  19,106  1,107   48.65%   48.54%   2.81%

CC1    28,590  26,036  1,501   50.94%   46.39%   2.67%
CC2    11,842  38,830  1,361   22.76%   74.63%   2.62%
CC3    45,266  28,887  1,942   59.49%   37.96%   2.55%
CC4    32,179  34,608  1,735   46.96%   50.51%   2.53%


Dist     Bush   Suazo   Pina    Bush%   Suazo%   Pina%
======================================================
HD26   34,619  29,520  1,518   52.73%   44.96%   2.31%
HD27   19,148  44,329  1,352   29.54%   68.38%   2.09%
HD28   45,308  35,889  2,099   54.39%   43.09%   2.52%
HD85   19,175  19,251  1,001   48.63%   48.83%   2.54%

CC1    28,572  26,224  1,430   50.82%   46.64%   2.54%
CC2    12,382  38,693    995   23.78%   74.31%   1.91%
CC3    44,897  29,245  2,060   58.92%   38.38%   2.70%
CC4    32,399  34,827  1,485   47.15%   50.69%   2.16%


Dist   Miller   Olson   Carp  Miller%   Olson%   Carp%
======================================================
HD26   32,617  31,836  1,092   49.76%   48.57%   1.67%
HD27   17,346  46,414    982   26.79%   71.69%   1.52%
HD28   43,153  38,535  1,436   51.91%   46.36%   1.73%
HD85   18,190  20,465    699   46.22%   52.00%   1.78%

CC1    27,153  27,991    984   48.38%   49.87%   1.75%
CC2    11,087  40,180    739   21.32%   77.26%   1.42%
CC3    43,016  31,680  1,367   56.55%   41.65%   1.80%
CC4    30,050  37,399  1,119   43.83%   54.54%   1.63%


Dist Craddick McAllen Wright   Cradd% McAllen% Wright%
======================================================
HD26   34,651  29,418  1,446   52.89%   44.90%   2.21%
HD27   18,632  44,694  1,400   28.79%   69.05%   2.16%
HD28   45,440  35,871  1,842   54.65%   43.14%   2.22%
HD85   19,057  19,321    950   48.46%   49.13%   2.42%
						
CC1    28,489  26,271  1,321   50.80%   46.84%   2.36%
CC2    11,864  39,056  1,092   22.81%   75.09%   2.10%
CC3    45,237  29,103  1,746   59.46%   38.25%   2.29%
CC4    32,190  34,874  1,479   46.96%   50.88%   2.16%

Everyone met or exceeded the downballot baseline in the State Rep districts, while the top three Dems (Collier, Nelson, Olson) exceeded the Hillary mark in each. Dems should find a strong candidate to try to win back the County Commissioner seat in Precinct 1 in 2020, it sure looks like they’d have a decent shot at it.

Here are the countywide candidates for Fort Bend:


Dist    Vacek    Midd   Vacek%   Midd%
======================================
HD26   33,939   30,925  52.32%  47.68%
HD27   17,978   46,218  28.00%  72.00%
HD28   44,422   37,771  54.05%  45.95%
HD85   19,031   20,001  48.76%  51.24%
				
CC1    28,339   27,352  50.89%  49.11%
CC2    11,489   40,138  22.25%  77.75%
CC3    44,369   30,842  58.99%  41.01%
CC4    31,173   36,583  46.01%  53.99%


Dist   Hebert   George Hebert% George%
======================================
HD26   35,058   30,030  53.86%  46.14%
HD27   18,504   45,803  28.77%  71.23%
HD28   45,183   37,094  54.92%  45.08%
HD85   19,256   19,856  49.23%  50.77%
				
CC1    29,061   26,671  52.14%  47.86%
CC2    11,779   39,896  22.79%  77.21%
CC3    45,061   30,192  59.88%  40.12%
CC4    32,100   36,024  47.12%  52.88%

Brian Middleton met or exceeded the Hillary standard everywhere, while KP George was a point or so behind him. Both were still enough to win. Note that for whatever the reason, there were no Democratic candidates running for County Clerk or County Treasurer. One presumes that will not be the case in 2022, and one presumes there will be a full slate for the county offices next year, with Sheriff being the big prize.

We should have 2018 election data on the elected officials’ profiles and the Legislative Council’s FTP site in a couple of weeks. When that happens, I’ll be back to focus on other districts of interest. In the meantime, I hope you found this useful.

Meet KP George

He’s the new Fort Bend County Judge.

KP George

In December, that strange suspended-in-motion month between his election and taking office, K.P. George was checking out the quaint old domed Fort Bend County Courthouse, soon to be his domain. In November, to the surprise of almost everyone outside his campaign, George had been elected Fort Bend’s county judge — which is to say, the top boss of one of the United States’ fastest-growing counties, with 765,000 residents, nearly 3,000 employees, and an annual budget over $370 million.

When George takes office on Jan. 1, he’ll become arguably the most powerful Indian-American in U.S. government — as well as a potent symbol of the new Fort Bend, and of Asian-Americans’ growing power in Texas and American politics.

[…]

And still, to most political insiders, George’s election came as a surprise. “He was not someone on our radar,” said Gautam Raghavan, executive director of the Indian-American Impact Fund. “It wasn’t a race we engaged in. In hindsight, that’s a lesson for us: In some of these places with fast-shifting demographics, like the Texas suburbs, there are huge opportunities for us.”

“For Republicans in Fort Bend County, Donald Trump is a real liability,” [Rice poli-sci professor Mark] Jones said. “Socially and fiscally conservative Asian-Americans used to vote for more Republicans. But Trump’s rhetoric and policies are seen as anti-immigrant — anti-Latino, but also anti-Asian.”

“Many Trump administration policies, such as targeting Muslims as terrorists, don’t play well with Asian-Americans…. Indian-Americans may not love Pakistanis, but the same racial discrimination that targets Pakistanis targets them.

“In Fort Bend, there was a double whammy for Republicans. A much larger proportion of Asian-Americans voted for Democrats, and Asian-Americans also turned out at a much higher rate than they had previously.”

Observers have long predicted that Texas’ changing demographics will eventually turn the most Republican of states into one that’s more bipartisan or even reliably Democratic. That’s already true of Texas’ cities. Now the battles have shifted to the suburbs.

Notably, George is a Democrat. “It’s a historic election for Texas,” said Jones — Fort Bend is the first exurb to elect a Democrat to the top of its county government. “It could portend the future for diverse counties such as Denton and Collin.”

I’m honestly surprised that this race wasn’t on the radar of any national organizations like the Indian-American Impact Fund. George was not a novice politician – he’d been twice elected to the Fort Bend ISD board of trustees. Fort Bend had been trending Dem for some time, and fit in every way the profile of the suburban, diverse, won-by-Hillary-in-2016 Congressional districts that were so hotly contested. Outgoing Judge Bob Hebert had served for a long time, but didn’t have the bipartisan cred that Ed Emmitt had, which might have helped him ride out the wave. This race should have been seen as a prime opportunity, and if it wasn’t that was a failure of imagination.

And yes, I believe this is a leading indicator for other suburban counties. Williamson County didn’t elect anyone countywide despite being carried by Beto O’Rourke, MJ Hegar, and Justin Nelson, but it did elect two Democratic State Reps and two JPs, while a Dem County Commissioner candidate fell just short. Dems didn’t carry any race in Denton or Collin, but elected a State Rep in Denton while just missing on two in Collin, and a JP in Denton County. It was a big step forward. There are no guarantees for 2020, of course, but the obstacle of credibility – the belief that it’s really possible a Dem could win – has been cleared. That can only help.

Another straight-ticket truther

Hello, outgoing Fort Bend DA John Healey!

John Healey

When John Healey began his career as a young prosecutor in Fort Bend County in the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan was president, MTV had just gone on the air and the then-rural county had fewer than 175,000 residents.

As Healey prepares to leave the office where he’s spent his entire career, including 26 years as the county’s top prosecutor, the sprawling suburb has roughly 764,000 residents with a growing number of diverse communities.

A Republican, Healey announced his retirement more than a year before the blue wave that swept many Democrats into county offices, including his own. Democrat Brian Middleton, a Houston defense attorney who once worked for Healey, will succeed him at the start of 2019.

[…]

The county is also tilting more toward the Democrats, from Hillary Clinton winning the county in 2016 to ousting longtime County Judge Bob Hebert, a Republican, this past fall. Hebert will be succeeded by Democrat KP George.

“I think you have a well-organized Democratic Party that mobilized a lot of people on fear across the board in the ballot of Donald Trump,” said Healey. “Those that voted straight-ticket voted good Republicans out of office, didn’t care that they were doing it, and maybe didn’t even know that they were doing it.”

I do so love the implication that people who voted straight ticket were too stupid to know who and what they were voting for. There’s nothing more appealing in a public official than insulting voters. The possibility that people may have been deliberately and consciously voting for a change of direction, to rebuke a corrupt and incompetent president, for the candidates who better reflected their values and experiences, or some combination of all three, just doesn’t occur to him. Which strongly suggests to me that he picked the right time to get off the stage.

And just for the record:


Straight R    81,228
Straight D    89,491
Margin         8,263

240th District Court

Bridges      117,587
Fraley       132,199
Margin        14,612

268th District Court

Hawkins      116,476
Williams     133,419
Margin        16,943

458th District Court

Cannata      117,370
Rolnick      132,206
Margin        14,836

District Attorney

Vacek        115,370
Middleton    134,915
Margin        19,545

County Judge

Hebert       118,001
George       132,783
Margin        14,782

District Clerk

Elliott      117,534
Walker       132,630
Margin        15,096

I skipped a few county court races, all of which were in the same range. Point being, even if you accept the ridiculous and ridicule-worthy claim that straight ticket votes are somehow less than other votes, every countywide Democrat in Fort Bend still won their race. Nowhere was that margin greater than in the race for DA, to succeed John Healey. You can believe what you want to believe, John. The voters knew what they wanted.

The Fort Bend blue wave

Let’s not forget that what happened in Harris County happened in Fort Bend, too.

KP George

Across the state, the “blue wave” that had long been a dream of the Democratic Party faithful failed to materialize in Tuesday’s midterm elections, with Republicans sweeping every statewide office for the 20th consecutive year, albeit by closer-than-expected margins.

But in Fort Bend County — the rapidly growing suburb southwest of Houston often heralded as a beacon of diversity — Democrats had their best election day since the political power base in Texas shifted from Democrat to Republican decades ago.

Political analysts attributed the near sweep in part to the county’s growing diversity, which also was reflected in the backgrounds of some of the winners: Middleton, who defeated Republican Cliff Vacek, is African-American, and Democrat KP George, who unseated longtime County Judge Robert Hebert, was born in India.

[…]

In Fort Bend County elections Tuesday, Democrats ousted Republican incumbents for county judge, Precinct 4 commissioner and district clerk. Middleton won the open district attorney race, and all 22 Democrats who ran for judicial positions — state district courts, appeals courts and county courts-at-law — prevailed; the lone Republican victor was opposed only by a Libertarian candidate.

Fort Bend County voters favored Democrats over Republicans for every statewide office on the ballot except governor. And even in that race, Gov. Greg Abbott, who won 56 percent of the statewide vote over challenger Lupe Valdez, managed only a slim plurality in Fort Bend County, besting Valdez by a mere 720 votes out of more than 250,000 cast.

Only in legislative campaigns did the Democrats fall short. Sri Kulkarni, who failed in his bid to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Olson in the multi-county 22nd Congressional District, lost in his district’s portion of Fort Bend County by 5 percentage points, roughly the same as the district-wide margin. Republican state Reps. Rick Miller and John Zerwas defeated Democratic challengers.

I agree that Fort Bend’s diversity played a big role in the result, but Fort Bend has been very diverse for years now. Democrats have come close before – Barack Obama got 48.50% in Fort Bend in 2008 – but they were never quite able to break through. This was the year it all came together, and I’d say it was a combination of demography, voter registration, Betomania, and the same disgust with Donald Trump from college-educated voters as we saw in Harris County and pretty much everywhere else. None of this really a surprise – we saw what was happening in Commissioners Court Precinct 4 in 2016 – but it still feels a bit unreal that it actually happened. The suburbs have long been the locus of Republican strength in Texas. That’s not true any more, and I think it’s going to take us all a little time to fully absorb that. In the meantime, I know some very happy people in Fort Bend right now. KUHF has more.

Meanwhile, in Montgomery County

There they go again.

The Republican primary defeat of embattled Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal — and close contests in two county commissioner races headed for runoffs — could signal major leadership changes and a shift further to the right in the fast-growing Houston suburb.

State Rep. Mark Keough, who defeated Doyal, was among several candidates favored by the county’s influential tea party movement — and like-minded statewide groups — who fared well Tuesday. Others in this cohort include Steve Toth, who overwhelmingly won the Republican nomination for the legislative seat that Keough is vacating, and Greg Parker, who got 43 percent of the vote in a three-person race and forced County Commissioner Charlie Riley, with 43.5 percent, into a primary runoff.

Toth and Parker have staked out positions aligned with the most far-right elements of their party. Parker’s campaign website says he wrote a book described as “a critical look at the myth and liberal hysteria surrounding climate change.” Toth, who was instrumental in the formation of the county’s tea party movement, has advocated eliminating property appraisal districts and freezing appraisals at the purchase price of a home.

[…]

Political observers agreed that toll roads emerged as a dominant issue in the county, where tea party groups carry a lot of clout, particularly in The Woodlands. Texas lawmakers have gone from championing to criticizing toll roads, a shift that some Houston-area leaders worry has gone too far and could limit coming projects.

“Without toll roads and that funding, I don’t know what we are going to do,” Doyal said late last year, citing the need for new roadways in rapidly growing parts of the Houston area.

Keough took a hard stance against toll roads.

“I think toll roads are another form of taxation,” Keough said last December. “I’m out on toll roads. Toll roads are about a bigger issue; it’s about big government.”

Doyal was embattled for a reason, and I’m sure that had something to do with it. I figure as long as the developers are able to keep building things life will go on more or less as normal up there. I mean, at some point they’re going to need to come up with a politically acceptable way to pay for the roads they want to build, but that’s their problem.

I confess, I don’t quite get the diatribe against toll roads. The whole idea with toll roads is that you only pay for them if you use them. Everyone pays gas taxes, whether they use the roads that get built with them or not. Which is fine by me, of course, but I’m one of those big-gubmint-loving-liberal types. If gas taxes, floating bonds, and toll roads are all off the table, what’s left? Perhaps Montgomery County will show us.

(Just a reminder, there is a choice if you think all of this is messed up.)

Filing roundup: Outside Harris County

A look at who filed for what on the Democratic side in the counties around Harris. These are all predominantly Republican counties, some more than others, so the Democrats are almost all challengers. On the flip side, there are many opportunities for gains.

Lisa Seger

Montgomery County

CD08 – Steven David

HD03 – Lisa Seger
HD15 – Lorena Perez McGill
HD16 – Mike Midler

County Judge – Jay Stittleburg
District Clerk – John-Brandon Pierre
County Treasurer – Mandy Sunderland

First, kudos to Montgomery County, hardly a Democratic bastion, for having so many candidates. They’re a County Clerk candidate away from having a full slate. I’m not tracking judicial candidates, County Commissioners, or Constables, but the MCDP has those, too. Steven David is a business and efficiency expert for the City of Houston. He’s running against Kevin “Cut all the taxes for the rich people!” Brady. Lisa Seger, whose district also covers Waller County, is a fulltime farmer in Field Store Community who has helped feed first responders during the fires of 2011 and is also involved in animal rescue. Her opponent is Cecil Bell, who was possibly the most fanatical pusher of anti-LGBT bills in the State House. She’s also a Facebook friend of my wife, who knows a lot of local farmers through her past work with Central City Co-Op. Jay Stittleburg is a Navy veteran and Project Management Professional who has worked in oil and gas. John-Brandon Pierre is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq. A very solid group.

Fort Bend County

CD22 – Letitia Plummer
CD22 – Margarita Ruiz Johnson
CD22 – Mark Gibson
CD22 – Sri Preston Kulkarni
CD22 – Steve Brown

SD17 – Fran Watson
SD17 – Rita Lucido
SD17 – Ahmad Hassan

HD26 – Sarah DeMerchant
HD27 – Rep. Ron Reynolds
HD27 – Wilvin Carter
HD28 – Meghan Scoggins
HD85 – Jennifer Cantu

County Judge – KP George
District Clerk – Beverly McGrew Walker

Gotta say, I’m kind of disappointed in Fort Bend. They had a full slate for county offices in 2014, but this year there wasn’t anyone to run for County Clerk or County Treasurer? I don’t understand how that happens. Mark Gibson and Steve Brown list Fort Bend addresses, while Letitia Plummer and Margarita Johnson are from Pearland and Sri Kulkarni is from Houston. The Senate candidates we’ve already discussed. For the State House, Sarah DeMerchant ran in 2016, while Wilvin Carter is the latest to try to take out Rep. Ron Reynolds, who is the only incumbent among all the candidates I’m listing in this post and whose story you know well. Meghan Scoggins has a background in aerospace but works now in the nonprofit sector, while Jennifer Cantu is an Early Childhood Intervention therapist for a Texas nonprofit. KP George is a Fort Bend ISD Trustee and past candidate for CD22.

Brazoria County

CD14 – Adrienne Bell
CD14 – Levy Barnes

SBOE7 – Elizabeth Markowitz

HD29 – Dylan Wilde Forbis
HD29 – James Pressley

County Judge – Robert Pruett
County Clerk – Rose MacAskie

CD22 and SD17 also contain Brazoria County. HD25, held by Dennis Bonnen, is in Brazoria but it is one of the few districts that drew no Democratic candidates. I haven’t focused much on the SBOE races, but as we know longtime Republican member David Bradley is retiring, so that seat is open. It’s not exactly a swing district, but maybe 2018 will be better than we think. Adrienne Bell has been in the CD14 race the longest; she’s a Houston native and educator who was on both the Obama 2012 and Wendy Davis 2014 campaigns. Levy Barnes is an ordained bishop with a bachelor’s in biology, and you’ll need to read his biography for yourself because there’s too much to encapsulate. Dylan Wilde Forbis is one of at least three transgender candidates for State House out there – Jenifer Pool in HD138 and Finnigan Jones in HD94 are the others I am aware of. The only useful bit of information I could find about the other candidates is the Robert Pruett had run for County Judge in 2014, too.

Galveston County

HD23 – Amanda Jamrok
HD24 – John Phelps

CD14 and SBOE7 are also in Galveston. Remember when Galveston was a Democratic county? Those were the days. I don’t have any further information about these candidates.

Hope these posts have been useful. There are more I hope to do, but they’re pretty labor intensive so I’ll get to them as best I can.

KP George files for Fort Bend County Judge

From the inbox:

KP George

Current Fort Bend Independent School District Board Trustee, Board Certified Financial Planner, father of three beautiful children, husband of a FBISD educator, and an Asian American citizen, KP George of Fort Bend County, is announcing his campaign for Fort Bend County Judge.

With immense changes in the county, the county must meet the demands of the 21st century and the communities that live here. Fort Bend County residents deserve better emergency preparedness, real fiscal responsibility, and constant community support. While KP George neighbors and strangers alike during the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, it became clear that Fort Bend County was ill prepared to assist Fort Bend residents. After discussions with stakeholders, it is stark as daylight that there are flaws to the county’s response and changes need to be made to better assist the diverse group of Fort Bend residents.

For all Fort Bend County residents, KP George will fight for stronger emergency systems, total fiscal responsibility, increased government transparency, and constant community engagement and input. The KP George campaign will focus on giving a voice to the incredible diversity we have in Fort Bend County and fixing the shortcomings of the current county government.

Just recently, KP George was re-elected as a FBISD Trustee this past May 2017 with 64% of the vote. KP George wants to thank his family, his friends, and God for helping him come from a small, poor village to eventually achieve the American Dream right here in Fort Bend County.

Here’s his Facebook page and his campaign webpage, which as of Tuesday still reflected his 2017 campaign. I’d mentioned the lack of countywide candidates in Fort Bend on Monday, so I’m glad to provide an update. George ran for Congress in CD22 in 2012 – here’s the interview I did with him. Fort Bend Democrats broke through at the Presidential level last year, and much like in Harris County they could have a good year in 2018. Gotta have the candidates first, so kudos to George for stepping up. I’ve got a larger update in a subsequent post, but wanted to highlight this one on its own.

El Paso County Judge considering a run for Congress

She’s not running for re-election, so that seems the most likely next step.

Veronica Escobar

El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar won’t seek re-election, she said Monday, adding she is exploring a run for Congress.

“I am looking closely at the congressional seat for the 16th district. It’s not a secret. Congressman (Beto) O’Rourke has raised the bar in a way that is very inspiring. I’m so excited about his run for Senate and I think he can win,” she said.

However, she stopped short of confirming a run for Congress.

“I am certain that I am not going to run for re-election. I do think it’s important to provide the community with enough time so that interested leaders can examine whether they want to do it or not,” she told the El Paso Times on Monday.

She added, “It’s a big race. The countywide race is not easy. And the primary is in March. Folks who may be considering it will need to talk to their family because running for public office is a huge decision.”

The primary for the next county election is in March, with the midterm election in November 2018.

Escobar, 47, was first elected county judge in 2010, and her current term expires Dec. 31, 2018. She previously served as county commissioner for Precinct 2.

[…]

Under Escobar’s leadership, county commissioners implemented a number of reforms within the administration, including in the controversial purchasing office and later creating the county’s first chief administrator position that mirrors a city manager. The county recently created an economic development department.

In a controversial move, Escobar in August 2016 voted in favor of giving county commissioners a nearly $26,600 a year pay raise, bringing their annual salaries to more than $89,000. She voted against giving herself a raise, although commissioners voted to increase her salary by more than $14,400. She now makes $102,000 a year.

Escobar most recently led the county in suing the state over Senate Bill 4, the so-called “show me your papers” law that is set to go into effect Sept. 1. The federal civil lawsuit filed last month seeks to block its implementation, calling the law unconstitutional.

While someone with Escobar’s profile would surely be a formidable candidate, this is a strong Democratic seat, so she will have some company in the primary.

El Paso Independent School District Board of Trustees President Dori Fenenbock is making her intentions clear. “If I can fight for El Pasoans,” she said. “I am happy to do it.”

Although neither have officially announced their candidacy, both say there needs to be a change on the Hill. ” We are feeling very frustrated and disgusted with our national government,” Fenenbock said. Escobar added, “This is a very, very important seat especially (with) what is happening in D.C. right now and all the decisions that will have a direct impact on the border and El Paso.”

Although the election is months away, both potential candidates are thinking about possible competition. “It’s hard to say who will be in the race this early,” Fenenback said. “But I am really focused on the work in Washington.”

I don’t know anything about El Paso politics, so I have no judgment on how good a Commissioner or County Judge Escobar was or how good a school board member Fenenbock is. I do know that if Escobar is elected to succeed Rep. O’Rourke she would be the first Latina elected to Congress from Texas, which would automatically give her a higher profile than the average Congressional newbie. Her departure from her current position may also encourage a current member of the El Paso legislative delegation to run for that job, so there could be a ripple effect to her decision. If you know more about either Judge Escobar or Ms. Fenenbock, please fill us in. In the meantime, we’ll keep an eye on this.

A Q&A about the TCDCC

Last week, I introduced you to the Texas County Democratic Campaign Committee (TCDCC), which is focused on recruiting and supporting county-level Democratic candidates outside of our current urban strongholds. It’s an idea and an organization that is long overdue. I wanted to know more about it, so I sent some questions to TCDCC founder Robert Ryland. Here’s our conversation:

1. What made you think of this? Are there organizations like the TCDCC in other states, or is this a first?

Well, for starters, Democrats have lost hundreds of county offices over the last few cycles and not many people seemed to have noticed, but it is crippling us at the grassroots level. I’ve been organizing and working with local candidates in Bastrop County over the last three cycles and seen firsthand their difficulties in trying to be heard over the din of the big media and big money that drives so much of the election narrative – and which has a much bigger impact on turnout than seemingly anything our local party can do for them. It’s like trying to control the tides. Access to resources outside their immediate community is virtually non-existent, and the state party hasn’t had the bandwidth or the funding to really support them in any meaningful way. In a state so dominated by hyper-conservative messaging, local Democrats are at a huge disadvantage in close races, especially in rural & suburban areas like ours. Losing local races also means losing our profile in the community and makes local politics discouraging to activists. We can’t keep hoping that some magical leader will ride to our rescue – Democratic county officials have to unite and work together and fight for themselves and for more progressive and responsible local government.

And we’ve needed something like this for a while. Our caucuses in the legislature and Congress have PACs to protect endangered incumbents and recruit and support candidates for competitive seats; why shouldn’t we have something similar for our elected officials at the level that’s closest to the voters? This is long overdue, in my opinion.

I haven’t come across organizations like this in other states, though I would hope they exist somewhere. I do know that in some states with strong Democratic infrastructure, the party does this kind of work.

2. What are the goals of the TCDCC? Do you intend to contribute directly to candidates, or to provide in-kind assistance (consulting, website, etc)?

The big picture is about rebuilding our bench with capable candidates and rehabilitating the Democratic brand at the neighborhood level. Our immediate goals are bringing our county-level incumbents together as stakeholders in this endeavor; identifying potential pickups, recruiting and training good candidates to run competitive races and supporting incumbents who may be facing serious Republican challenges.

We’ve modeled this somewhat after HDCC. We’ll build this out to be able to provide different services depending on the candidate’s needs. That may be direct contributions, or in-kind work by helping them put together a solid campaign, connecting them with the right vendors, training them to run field programs and work with voter data, etc. It may mean other things directly from the PAC. Moving forward, we want to be able to provide a suite of member services to office-holders to help them serve their constituents more effectively and make the case for more progressive policy and budgeting at the county level.

3. How will you identify the candidates you want to assist? How can a candidate put himself or herself on the TCDCC’s radar?

The best way for prospective candidates to put themselves on our radar right now is to contact us at [email protected] and tell us about themselves.

The big question for any candidate is always “can you win?” But it’s never as simple as the numbers might suggest.

We’ve started by looking closely at precinct-level election data, demographics, and trends as well as local issues and community assets. Several factors can affect a local race. Who has a good profile and background for the office, and the skill set to run a strong race? What kinds of factors might make the Republican incumbent or potential challengers vulnerable? I think that wherever we can find a strong candidate who wants to run, it’s important that we find a way to help them somehow – even if the numbers may not favor them this cycle. This is a long-term project. We have to look at future cycles too, find ways we can make a dent in the Republican machine. We should keep in mind that a lack of opposition implies consent. There’s an old saying: the best time to plant a tree is 40 years ago – the next best time to plant a tree is right now.

4. Do you intend to prioritize certain office types over others, or are all county offices in scope?

We want to start by focusing on the policy and budgeting end of county government – commissioners and county judges, for the most part. Administrative and law enforcement offices are a different animal, and we’ll need more time and study to figure out where those might fit in to our plan. In some counties they carry more authority than others. We don’t want to box ourselves out of anything at this point, so we will certainly examine any opportunity. But the commissioners’ courts are where our focus is for now.

5. You said in your introductory email that the TCDCC seeks to support “county-level Democratic candidates outside of our current urban strongholds”. Are there particular parts of the state that you will be targeting? Are there any races you are looking at already?

We’re looking all over the state, but working outside our urban strongholds is really central to this; it’s where we need it most. The big cities have strong local parties and campaign infrastructure; they’re already developing young candidates and campaign professionals through their ranks, and have a broader base of institutional assets to draw on. Plus, with electorates of their size, much larger financial interests come into play. We want to focus in counties where we don’t have such muscular advantages – but where a little investment could go a long way. Staying out of the biggest counties also stretches our resources because the voter universes are much more manageable, especially for first-time candidates. We can keep these contests on a grassroots level, where you can shake hands with pretty much every person who can cast a ballot for you, and build relationships with voters face-to-face. There are a number of races we’ve already identified as potential pickups and we’ve only scratched the surface. Keep in mind that we lost quite a few seats in 2010 that we shouldn’t have; there’s actually quite a bit of low-hanging fruit, even in some less-than-obvious places.

The fun part about looking at county-level seats is that, while a particular House district or county may be heavily Republican, it may still be possible to find a precinct where Democrats can win. Instead of fretting about our chances to elect a Governor in 2014, let’s drill down and find places where Democratic voters could be propelled to the polls by a local candidate. At that level, the playing field can be pretty broad. Lots of folks are talking about Battleground, and their work is very important, but it only creates a new set of building blocks for us. To make that effort meaningful we need candidates for these newly-registered people to vote for – at every level.

6. The email also mentioned candidate recruitment. What are your plans for that?

Recruitment is the most critical element in this project. There’s a lot of research and profile-building that goes into successful recruitment, but I believe there is a great deal of value to be found in people and places that have historically been overlooked by our party’s establishment. We’ve already met with some folks who are exploring runs for county office, and we’ll be meeting with local officials, community leaders, party activists and others, anywhere and everywhere over the next 6 months. I just came back from the West Texas Conference of the County Judges and Commissioners Association out in Midland, where I met some great local Democrats who are prevailing against a pretty stacked deck. There are more opportunities like that to talk with potential recruits and incumbents – but we certainly won’t limit ourselves to those. All over the state there are Democrats who are community & business leaders, local school board & city council members – lots of talented folks serving right now, or wanting to serve, who could make formidable candidates. It’s important to find people with a good background, who will reflect well on our party, but who also understand the local political landscape and what it will take to connect with voters in their community.

It’s worth noting that some of our existing candidate committees (HDCC, DCCC etc.) have been forced leave some talent off the field for lack of a competitive district, and some folks who would make great candidates have declined to run due to the hefty price tag. Running for the State House is now a half-million-dollar proposition at least. That’s intimidating to anyone, let alone someone who’s pondering their first race. County races are much more affordable and manageable, and the candidate has the added comfort of being able to remain much closer to home and the community they know best, so the learning curve is shorter as well. Those are strong selling points.

7. What has the reaction been from the Democratic establishment?

I’m happy to say that the reaction has been uniformly positive and supportive. Lots of folks had the same reaction you did – “Great idea! Why haven’t we been doing this already?” It’s been a perpetual weakness in our infrastructure, and not working at this level has cost us dearly in terms of our bench and our impact on public policy. There’s been lots of encouragement for the project so far; we need to translate that support into a steady revenue stream to build a strong organization and maintain it over the long haul. This is just the beginning.

8. What can people do to help?

Supporters can donate to TCDCC via ActBlue. For info on other ways to contribute, go to http://www.texascdcc.com/tcdcc-contribute.html.

Beyond that, We need help with the number-crunching. We need to build a database of crucial information, down to the voting precinct level, that can be instrumental not only to this project but to other Democratic organizations across the state. We also need current Democratic elected officials at every level to see the big picture and climb on board with this effort.

Of course folks should Like us on Facebook, and spread the word to their friends. And we need eyes and ears. A project of this scope needs to have friends everywhere who can help us identify local assets, potential candidates and funding sources. We’ll have to lean on locals who know their communities and what issues are important to their neighbors. Information is going to be our lifeblood, and in that sense, Democrats in all parts of the state can play a critical role in this effort. Honestly, what better way to rebuild than from the ground up?

Robert can be contacted at [email protected] if you have questions or information to share. I hope you’re inspired to donate to and like the TCDCC as I have been. There are many facets to turning Texas blue, and we need to be engaged in all of them.

Dallas County’s elections administrator resigns

I spotted this story in the DMN the other day.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins has called a meeting of an obscure commission charged with appointing a county elections chief, raising the suspicion that it’s an attempt to oust longtime Elections Administrator Bruce Sherbet.

The County Election Commission, which county officials say has not met since the late 1980s, is made up of Jenkins, Tax Assessor John Ames, County Clerk John Warren, local Republican Party Chairman Jonathan Neerman and local Democratic Party Chairwoman Darlene Ewing.

The meeting has been set for 3:30 p.m. Friday at the Fox conference room in the Dallas County Administration Building.

Jenkins said Tuesday he is not targeting Sherbet for removal but simply convening the meeting because state law says it must meet every two years.

“What this is to me is following what I understand to be the law,” Jenkins said. “All the members of the committee are free to nominate whomever they want to.”

Jenkins, who said the meeting would take five minutes, did not comment specifically about Sherbet or his job performance, saying it would be inappropriate for him to do so since he is county judge and Sherbet is a county employee.

The newly elected county judge, however, did not rule out that a vote on Sherbet would be taken at the meeting.

Neither of the two party chairs had any desire to make a change, according to the story, so the four-fifths majority to remove Sherbet didn’t exist regardless of what Judge Jenkins has in mind. In the end, that didn’t matter because Sherbet resigned later in the day. I know nothing about Bruce Sherbet and have no opinion as to how good a job he did, though clearly a lot of people liked him, I’m just noting this story out of curiosity over how Judge Emmett’s proposal for an elections administrator for Harris County is doing. I suppose the fact that the county is firing people left and right and is supposed to be under a hiring freeze would create obstacles to the creation of a new position. Still, I haven’t heard anything since Don Sumners’ post-election tantrum about the idea and the subsequent kerfuffle over his attempt to make voter registration more difficult, so I thought I’d throw this out there and see what happens.

Runoff roundup

Here’s a look at some of the runoff elections that will be on the ballot next month.

On the Democratic side…boy, there’s not much. No statewide runoffs, as Linda Chavez-Thompson got a majority in her three-candidate race for Lite Guv. One for Congress, where Robert Pruett and Winston Cochrane compete for the right to challenge Ron Paul in CD14. One for State Rep, where incumbent Norma Chavez in El Paso’s HD76 trailed Naomi Gonzalez by a handful of votes. In Harris County, there will be four judicial races and one JP race:

234th Civil District Court: Tanner Garth versus Jim Peacock
270th Civil District Court: Bob Thomas versus Lee Arellano
308th Family District Court: Bruce Kessler versus Julia Maldonado
311th Family District Court: Deborah Wright versus Brad Morris
JP, Precinct 3, Place 2: Don Coffey versus Denise Graves

I’m thinking you’ll be able to count turnout on your fingers. Which means that if you do vote, it’s worth that much more.

Two other runoffs of interest elsewhere: In Travis County, the open 299th Civil District Court bench will feature Mindy Montford, who lost a runoff to replace Ronnie Earle as DA in 2008, and Karen Sage. This is the bench that 3rd Court of Appeals Justice Jan Patterson had inquired with Rick Perry for an appointment, which annoyed a lot of the Dem faithful there since it would have allowed Perry to also replace her on the 3rd Court with a Republican, giving the GOP a 4-2 edge. Patterson wound up running for the 201st and was soundly defeated there by Amy Clark Meachum.

Finally, in Dallas County, Clay Jenkins came within a hair of winning the nomination for County Judge – he missed the 50% mark by 75 votes – and will be in a runoff with Larry Duncan. Both finished ahead of incumbent Jim Foster, who was swept into office in 2006 but wasn’t up to the task.

Much more action on the Republican side, starting with the Supreme Court race I mentioned before. Six Congressional runoffs, of which the ones in CD17, between Bill Flores and 2008 candidate Rob Curnock, and CD23, between Will Hurd and repeat nomination-seeker Quico Canseco, are the main ones of interest. One runoff for the SBOE, where Marsha Farney will face Cynthia Dunbar’s hand-picked successor, Bryan Russell, for her open seat.

There are eight runoffs for State Rep seats, two of which feature incumbents – Fred Brown in HD14 and Delwin Jones in HD83 – three of which are for open seats – Mabrie Jackson and Van Taylor in HD66, which was Brian McCall’s seat; Mark Griffin and John Frullo in HD84 to replace Carl Isett; Dan Huberty and Susan Curling in HD127, which was Joe Crabb’s seat; former Houston City Council Member Addie Wiseman came in third – and three of which are to challenge incumbent Democrats – Paul Workman and Holly Turner to face Rep. Valinda Bolton in HD47; John Gordon and Larry Gonzales to face Rep. Diana Maldonado in HD52; and Jack O’Connor versus Dianne Williams in HD149 to face Rep. Hubert Vo.

In Harris County, there are a couple of judicial runoffs and one JP race, plus the one for county GOP Chair.

180th Criminal District Court: Danny Dexter and Marc Brown
308th Family District Court: James Lombardino and Alice O’Neill
JP Precinct 5, Place 2: Jeff Williams and George Huntoon

I think that’s everything. If I missed something, let me know.

UPDATE: Burka has a good analysis of the legislative runoffs.

Clay Jenkins

Clay Jenkins is a candidate for County Judge in Dallas. He’s running in the Democratic primary against the incumbent, Jim Foster, who knocked off the Republican incumbent in the 2006 countywide sweep, in a race nobody expected him to win. (This is why we say Run Everywhere.) I don’t normally get involved in that kind of race outside of the Houston area, but Jenkins was a big supporter of Rick Noriega last year, and any friend of the Noriegas i a friend of mine. Rick and Melissa are hosting an event for Clay Jenkins at their place this Sunday – details are beneath the fold – so if you’d like to know more about Jenkins and what’s going on in Dallas, come on out to the Noriegas’ house on Sunday and find out.

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