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Governor

On executive power and the role of the Legislature

Just a few thoughts from recent events relating to Greg Abbott, COVID-19, vote access and suppression, local control, all those Hotze lawsuits, and so forth.

1. I think most of us would agree that however we assess Greg Abbott’s performance in response to the COVID pandemic, we need to have a conversation about the extent of the Governor’s executive powers and the role that the Legislature should have when laws are being amended or suspended on the fly in response to crisis situations. The lack of any input from the Legislature in all these COVID actions, from mask and shutdown orders and the subsequent reopening orders to expanding and contracting early voting and voting by mail, is a direct result of the system we have where the Legislature only meets once every other year, unless called into session by the Governor. All Abbott needs to do to keep the Lege at arm’s length is to not call a special session, which has been his response numerous times going back to the Hurricane Harvey aftermath. It may be time to admit that our quaint little system of “citizen legislators” who leave the farm every other year to handle The People’s Business in Austin just doesn’t work in the 21st century. If we don’t want Greg Abbott or any other Governor to be the sole authority on these matters, then we need to have a Lege that meets more often, and to have a Lege that meets more often means we need to accept the idea of legislating as a profession and adjust the compensation accordingly. I recognize that this is a thing that will almost certainly never happen, but I’m putting it on the table because we’re kidding ourselves otherwise.

2. A somewhat less foundation-shifting response would be to pass laws that mandate an expiration date on all emergency-response executive orders, which can only be renewed with the approval of the legislature. Put in a provision that allows the Lege to convene and vote on such things remotely, which bypasses the need for a special session and also allows for the Lege to operate in the context of a pandemic or other condition that would prevent them from meeting in person at the Capitol. Another possibility, which need not be mutually exclusive, is to mandate some conditions under which a special session must be called, say after an emergency declaration that has lasted for a certain duration or has resulted in some set of actions on the Governor’s part. It is within the Lege’s power to force itself into this conversation.

3. I would argue that when the Lege takes up the Disaster Act, or whatever other response it makes to review and revise executive authority in the wake of a declared disaster, it should clarify what kind of actions the Governor can take. Specifically, any action by the Governor must be taken in the service of containing, mitigating, or recovering from the disaster in question. As I said before, in the context of early voting and voting by mail, extending early voting and expanding vote by mail and allowing for mail ballots to be dropped off during early voting all served the purpose of mitigating the spread of coronavirus, but limiting the number of mail ballot dropoff locations did not, in the same way that limiting the number of food distribution locations following a hurricane would not count as hurricane/flood relief. I say that should make Abbott’s order illegal under the Disaster Act, and whatever the courts ultimately rule about that, the law should be changed to reflect that viewpoint.

4. The law could also be amended to limit litigation that would contravene this goal of mitigating the declared disaster. What is the law here for, and why should we let some cranks make technical (and let’s face it, mostly ridiculous) arguments that would worsen the disaster for some number of people?

5. If the Republican Party still had some affinity for local control, instead of putting all its chips on limiting what local officials they don’t like are allowed to do, then codifying the powers of county officials in response to a disaster might be worthwhile. I have some sympathy for Abbott’s stated impulse to not put a burden on smaller rural counties when it’s the more heavily populated ones that needed shutdown orders, but that sympathy only extends to the limit of what Abbott was willing to let the county judges of those more populated places do. I want to be careful here because a wacko county judge like the guy in Montgomery could easily have a negative effect on his neighbors like Harris if granted too much discretion, but I think if we stick to the mantra of everything needing to be in the service of mitigating and recovering from the disaster in order to be legal and valid, we can work this out.

6. Some of what I’m talking about here will split along partisan lines, but not all of it will. Clearly, there is some appetite among Republicans to limit executive power, though not in a way that I would endorse, but that is not universal. It’s clear from the Paxton brief in response to the latest Hotze mandamus that our AG at least believes in a strong executive, and I believe that feeling extends to other Republicans. Democrats can likely drive some of this discussion, especially if they are a majority in the House, but they will want to be careful as well, lest they wind up clipping the wings of (say) Governor Julian Castro in 2023. This is a multi-dimensional problem, that’s all I’m saying.

(Oh, and any Republican coalition in favor of a strong executive will of course evaporate the minute there is a Democratic Governor. I mean, obviously.)

I’m sure there are other aspects to this that I am not thinking of. My point is that this is a topic the Lege can and should take up, even if any bill they pass is likely to run into a veto. I just wanted to lay out what I think the parameters of the discussion are, or at least what I’d like them to be. Who knows what actually will happen – the election will shape it in some ways – but I hope this serves as a starting point for us to think about.

Win one, lose one at SCOTX

The win:

Early voting in Texas can begin Oct. 13, following the timeline the governor laid out months ago, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, rejecting a request from several top Texas Republicans to limit the timeframe for voters to cast their ballots.

In July, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered that early voting for the general election in Texas begin nearly a week earlier than usual, a response to the coronavirus pandemic. But a number of prominent Republicans, including state party Chair Allen West, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and several members of the Texas Legislature, challenged that timeframe in September, arguing that Abbott defied state election law, which dictates that early voting typically begins on the 17th day before an election — this year, Oct. 19.

Abbott added six days to the early voting period through an executive order, an exercise of the emergency powers he has leaned into during the virus crisis. The Republicans who sued him argued this was an overreach.

The state’s highest civil court, which is entirely held by Republicans, ruled that the GOP officials who sued challenging Abbott’s extension waited until the last minute to do so, when he had already extended early voting in the primary election and announced he would do the same for the general months ago. Chief Justice Nathan Hecht noted also that the election is already underway.

“To disrupt the long-planned election procedures as relators would have us do would threaten voter confusion,” he wrote in the opinion.

See here and here for some background, and here for the opinion. After noting that Abbott has “issued a long series of proclamations invoking the Act as authority to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on a wide range of activities in the State” since his disaster declaration in March, the Court notes that the relators (the fancy legal name for “plaintiffs” in this kind of case) took their sweet time complaining about it:

Relators delayed in challenging the Governor’s July 27 proclamation for more than ten weeks after it was issued. They have not sought relief first in the lower courts that would have allowed a careful, thorough consideration of their arguments regarding the Act’s scope and constitutionality. Those arguments affect not only the impending election process but also implicate the Governor’s authority under the Act for the many other actions he has taken over the past six months. Relators’ delay precludes the consideration their claims require.

The dissent argues that relators acted diligently because they filed their petition in this Court four days after they received an email confirming that the Harris County Clerk intended to comply with the Governor’s July 27 proclamation. But relators’ challenge is to the validity of the proclamation, not the Clerk’s compliance.16 Relators could have asserted their challenge at any time in the past ten weeks. The dissent also argues that the Court has granted relief after similar delays. But none of the cases the dissent cites bears out its argument.17

Moreover, the election is already underway. The Harris County Clerk has represented to the Court that his office would accept mailed-in ballots beginning September 24. To disrupt the long-planned election procedures as relators would have us do would threaten voter confusion.

[…]

Mandamus is an “extraordinary” remedy that is “available only in limited circumstances.”20 When the record fails to show that petitioners have acted diligently to protect their rights, relief by mandamus is not available.21 The record here reflects no justification for relators’ lengthy delay.

The “dissent” refers to the dissenting opinion written by Justice John Devine, who was all along the biggest cheerleader for the vote suppressors. I have no particular quibble with this opinion, which seems correct and appropriate to me, but the grounds on which the mandamus is denied are awfully narrow, which gives me some concern. The Court may merely be recognizing the fact that there are several outstanding challenges to Abbott’s authority to use his executive powers in this fashion, relating to mask and shutdown orders as well as election issues, and they may simply want to leave that all undisturbed until the lower courts start to make their rulings. That too is fine and appropriate, but I can’t help but feel a little disquieted at the thought that maybe these guys could have succeeded if the timing (and their lawyering) had been better.

That ruling also settled the question of counties being able to accept mail ballots at dropoff locations during the early voting process – the relators had demanded that mail ballot dropoff be limited to Election Day only. None of this is related to the issue of how many dropoff locations there may be, which is being litigated in multiple other lawsuits, four now as of last report. We are still waiting on action from those cases.

On the negative side, SCOTX put the kibosh on County Clerk Chris Hollins’ plan to send out mail ballot applications to all registered voters in Harris County.

The state’s highest civil court ruled Wednesday that Hollins may not put the applications in the mail. The documents can be accessed online, and are often distributed by political campaigns, parties and other private organizations. But for a government official to proactively send them oversteps his authority, the court ruled.

“We conclude that the Election Code does not authorize the mailing proposed by the Harris County Clerk,” the court wrote in an unsigned per curiam opinion.

The Republican justices sent the case back to a lower court in Harris County to issue an injunction blocking Hollins from sending the mailers.

The county has already distributed the applications to voters who are at least 65, who automatically qualify for absentee ballots, and has also begun sending out the applications to other voters who requested them. An attorney for Hollins estimated last week that the county would send out about 1.7 million more applications if the court allowed.

See here and here for some background, here for a statement from Hollins, and here for the unanimous opinion, which is longer than the one in the first case. The Court goes into the many ways in which the Legislature has expressed its intent that most people should vote in person, and then sums up its view Clerks getting creative:

Hollins’ mass mailing of ballot applications would undercut the Secretary’s statutory duty to “maintain uniformity” in Texas’ elections, the Legislature’s “very deliberate[]” decision to authorize only discrete categories of Texans to vote by mail, and its intent that submission of an application be an action with legal gravity.43

Authority for Hollins’ proposed mass mailing can be implied from the Election Code only if it is necessarily part of an express grant—not simply convenient, but indispensable. Any reasonable doubt must be resolved against an implied grant of authority. Mass-mailing unsolicited ballot applications to voters ineligible to vote by mail cannot be said to be necessary or indispensable to the conduct of early voting. Even if it could be, doubt on the matter is certainly reasonable and must be resolved against recognizing implied authority. We hold that an early voting clerk lacks authority under the Election Code to mass-mail applications to vote by mail. The State has demonstrated success on the merits of its ultra vires claim.

I’ve discussed my views on this before, when the appeals court upheld the original order, and I don’t have anything to add to that. I agree with Michael Hurta that this case will be cited in future litigation that aims to limit what Texas localities can do to innovate, which is what Hollins was doing here. It’s basically another attack on local control, and as I replied to that tweet, it’s another item to the Democrats’ to do list when they are in a position to pass some laws.

I hate this ruling for a lot of reasons, but that right there is at the top of the list. The Court based its ruling in part on the fact that Hollins was doing something no one else had thought to try – “all election officials other than Hollins are discharging this duty in the way that they always have”, they say as part of their reasoning to slap Hollins down” – and while I can see the logic and reason in that, we’re in the middle of a fucking pandemic, and sometimes you have to step outside the box a bit to get things done in a manner that is safe and effective. I get where the Court is coming from, and I admit that allowing County Clerks to experiment and freelance has the potential to cause problems, but it sure would have been nice for the Court to at least recognize that Hollins’ actions, however unorthodox they may have been, did not come out of a vacuum. Clearly, the fact that the arguments in this case were heard via Zoom didn’t sink in with anyone.

On a practical level, I don’t know how many people would have voted via absentee ballot who would not have otherwise participated. Some number, to be sure, but I really don’t think it’s all that much. It’s the principle here, one part making it harder to vote and one part keeping the locals in line, that bothers me. As has been the case so many times, we’re going to have to win more elections and then change the laws if we want some progress. You know what to do. The Chron has more.

When Republicans fight

Such a sight to see.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s most exasperating allies sure chose an awkward time to act up.

In the face of a momentous election, with an array of issues that includes the pandemic, the recession, climate change, racial justice, law enforcement and the next appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, the chairman of the Texas GOP and a gang of lawmakers and activists have instead picked a fight with Abbott, who isn’t even on the ballot, over his response to the pandemic.

On the surface, they’re asking the courts to tell the governor that adding six more days of early voting to the calendar was outside of his powers. Abbott made the move under emergency powers he has claimed during the pandemic — the same powers he has used at various times to shut down schools, limit crowd sizes and limit how many customers businesses can serve at a time, or in some cases, to close businesses altogether.

The timing is connected to the Nov. 3 general election; even with the arguments over emergency powers, opponents of the governor’s action would be expected to grab for a remedy before early voting starts on Oct. 13. One might say the same about other lawsuits challenging the governor’s orders — that they’re tied not to politics, but to current events. Bar owners want to open their bars, for instance, and are not in the financial condition or the mood to stay closed until after the elections just to make the current set of incumbents look good.

What’s unusual is to see so many prominent Republican names on the top of a lawsuit against the Republican governor of Texas this close to an election.

In a gentler time, that might be called unseemly or distracting. Speaking ill of another Republican was considered out of bounds for a while there. Those days are over. What’s happening in Texas illustrates how the pandemic, the economy and other issues have shaken political norms.

As the story notes, this is also playing out in the SD30 special election, where Shelley Luther – supported by a million dollars from one of the Empower Texans moneybags – is busy calling Abbott a “tyrant”. There’s talk of various potential primary challengers to Abbott in 2022 – see the comments to this post for a couple of names – but I don’t see any serious threat to him as yet. If Dan Patrick decides he wants a promotion, then we’ve got something. Until then, it’s all talk.

But let me float an alternate scenario by you. What if the nihilist billionaires behind Empower Texans decide that Abbott and the Republican Party have totally sold out on them, and instead of finding someone to take Abbott out in a primary, they bankroll a petition drive to put some pet wingnut on the November ballot, as an independent or the nominee of some new party they just invented? It’s crazy and almost certain to hand the Governor’s mansion over to the Democratic nominee, but no one ever said these guys were strategic geniuses. It’s been said that there are three real political parties in Texas – the Democrats, the establishment Republicans, and the far right whackadoo Republicans. This would arguably be an outgrowth of that, and in what we all hope is a post-Trump world, there may be similar splits happening elsewhere.

How likely is this? As I said, it makes no sense in the abstract. It’s nearly impossible to see a path to victory for either Abbott or the appointed anti-Abbott. It’s instructive to compare to 2006, where Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman were taking votes away from both Rick Perry and Chris Bell. Nobody who considers themselves remotely a Democrat is going to be wooed by whoever Empower Texans could vomit onto the ballot. Maybe they would consider a victory by Julian Castro or whichever Dem to be preferable to another Abbott term, in their own version of “the two parties are the same, we must burn down the duopoly to get everything we want”. Just because it makes no sense doesn’t mean it can’t happen. For now, if I had to bet, my money would be on some token but not completely obscure challenger to Abbott in the primary – think Steve Stockman against John Cornyn in 2014, something like that. But a lot can happen in a year, and if the Dems do well this November, that could add to the pressure against Abbott. Who knows? Just another bubbling plot line to keep an eye on.

Paxton opposes Hotze mandamus to curb early voting

From Reform Austin:

In a brief filed with the Texas Supreme Court, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton argues that the GOP group suing Gov. Greg Abbott to prevent him from extending early voting for the November election has no standing and has failed to prove any harm.

Conservative activist Steve Hotze and a long list of high-profile Texas Republicans claim Abbott is violating Texas election law and overstepping his authority without first consulting with the Texas Legislature.

Paxton counters that delegation of powers is both necessary and proper in certain circumstances.

“The Legislature properly exercised its delegation power when it enacted the Disaster Act because it contains adequate standards to guide its exercise,” Paxton’s brief reads. “It sets parameters for what constitutes a disaster, provides a standard for how the governor is to declare one, places limits on his emergency powers, and specifies when the disaster ends.”

See here for the background. A copy of the Paxton brief is here. The introduction is worth a read:

To the Honorable Supreme Court of Texas:

Relators direct their petition at the Secretary of State, even though they do not allege that she has undertaken or threatened to undertake any unlawful action. Neither the Governor’s July 27 proclamation (“the Proclamation”) nor the Election Code imposes any ministerial duty on the Secretary. And the provisions of the Election Code concerning early voting are administered by county election officials, not the Secretary of State. Although the Election Code designates the Secretary as Texas’s “chief election officer,” this Court has long held that does not give her generalized enforcement power over every provision of the Election Code. Moreover, the Proclamation independently binds each county’s early-voting clerk, so any mandamus issued against the Secretary would not remedy Relators’ grievances. Indeed, granting the relief Relators seek would have no impact at all—which makes this petition nothing more than a request for an advisory opinion.

Relators’ merits arguments are similarly misguided. They raise multiple constitutional challenges to the Disaster Act, but none is properly before this Court because the Disaster Act delegates no power to the Secretary. And in any event, the Governor’s discretion and authority under the Disaster Act are cabined by reasonable standards, so it is a lawful delegation of legislative power, and the July 27 Proclamation is a proper exercise of that delegated power.

Relators waited two months to file this mandamus petition, yet they ask this Court to “alter the election rules on the eve of an election.” Republican Nat’l Comm. v. Democratic Nat’l Comm., 140 S. Ct. 1205, 1207 (2020). They are not entitled to relief.

Well, now we know where Ken Paxton’s line in the sand is: He’ll value the Governor’s executive power over a challenge to voting rights. Well, he’ll value this Governor’s executive power over a challenge to this Governor’s use of that executive power to enhance voting rights. Good enough for these purposes, I suppose.

Other court documents related to this writ are here. There are now documents available relating to the latest Harris County writ as well, which you can find here. Responses to that are due today at 4 PM. Have I mentioned lately that I will be happy to ease up on all the legal blogging? Please get me past this election, that’s all I ask.

PPP/TDP: Trump 48, Biden 48

More polls.

A new poll of likely voters found that President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden are tied in Texas. The poll, commissioned by the Texas Democratic Party through Public Policy Polling, is the latest reflecting a dead heat race in the state.

Trump and Biden both received 48% support with 4% of respondents undecided.

Trump has led six of the last seven statewide polls in Texas, according to a tracker of 2020 presidential polls compiled by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. Before that, Biden had led five of seven polls.

[…]

The poll also found an underwater approval rating for Trump in Texas, 47-to-48. Trump and Biden will participate in the first 2020 presidential debate on Tuesday.

Polling data is here. They did not include a question about the Senate race, unfortunately. Biden wins 2016 Clinton voters 93-3 and the “Other/Did not vote” contingent 66-25, while Trump carries his voters from 2016 by an 89-8 margin. (The sample reported voting for Trump in 2016 by 50-41.) Biden wins Democrats 88-7, Trump wins Republicans 87-11, and Biden wins independents 54-41. Biden wins Black voters 88-7, Latinos 63-32, and “Other” voters 68-19, while Trump takes white voters 66-32. Voters 18 to 45 go for Biden 56-41, voters 46 to 65 go for Trump 49-47, and voters older than 65 back Trump by a 58-37 margin. None of those data points stand out as being out of whack with other polling.

I should note that the aforementioned poll tracker shows an August 22 PPP poll done for the TDP that had Biden up 48-47. I either missed that one or didn’t get around to it. I have a June 5 PPP/TDP poll that also had a 48-48 tie, which the tracker does not include. For whatever the reason, some polls get Chron/DMN/Trib coverage, while others do not. There is a lot of news out there, I get it.

Along those lines there was a Data for Progress poll from last week that was interesting in a couple of ways.

For this November’s election, Biden trails Trump by 1 point in Texas. Senator John Cornyn maintains a 2-point lead over his Democratic challenger, MJ Hegar. In the Senate race, it is notable, however, that a significant block of voters (22 percent) say they’re not yet sure for whom they will vote. In the GCB, Democrats trail by five-points.

In 2022, Texas will hold elections for governor and attorney general. These positions are held by Republicans Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton, respectively. Currently, Abbot enjoys a 12-point lead over a generic Democratic challenger. In the 2018 race for attorney general, Democrat Justin Nelson ran against Republican incumbent Ken Paxton, and when we retested this race, we found that Paxton leads Nelson by 4 points. Like with our other 2022 polling, about one in five voters remains unsure for whom they will be voting.

The numbers, which they are only showing in graphical form, are 46-45 for Trump, 40-38 for Cornyn, and 46-41 for the Generic Congressional Ballot (GCB). There was a Data for Progress poll done in early September for the HDCC that had Biden up 48-45, so this isn’t a terrific result when put next to that, but it’s in line with most other polls. DfP also polled Florida (three point lead for Biden) and Arizona (one point lead for Trump, which is better for Trump than other polls).

The 2022 polling is interesting but not worth taking too seriously. Greg Abbott may be leading a generic Democrat 46-34, but he’s very likely not going to have a generic Dem running against him, at least not if all the candles I’ve been lighting for Julian Castro have any effect. Ken Paxton’s 41-37 lead over Justin Nelson makes some sense, but as of today Paxton’s opposition comes in the form of Joe Jaworski, though as that post notes Jaworski is sure to have company in the primary, and it would shock no one if that company includes Justin Nelson. Take this all for pure entertainment value and check with me again in a year or so.

Hotze and crew appeal to SCOTX to stop the extra week of early voting

Here we go again.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is facing a lawsuit over his extension of early voting for the November election from prominent members of his own party — including state party Chairman Allen West, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and members of the Texas Legislature.

In July, Abbott added six days to the early voting period, moving the start date up to Oct. 13 from Oct. 19, citing the coronavirus pandemic. In the lawsuit, filed Wednesday with the state Supreme Court, Abbott’s intra-party critics say the move defied election law that requires early voting to start on the 17th day before the election.

It is the latest legal challenge to Abbott’s emergency powers, which he has wielded aggressively in dealing with the pandemic.

“Governor Abbott seems to have forgotten that the Texas Constitution is not a document that he consults at his convenience,” Jared Woodfill, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “It is an uninterrupted charter of governmental structure that limits the Governor Abbott’s ability to act as a king.”

The plaintiffs argue Abbott needs to consult the Legislature before making such decisions and that “if ever a special session was justified, now is the time.”

One of the plaintiffs is Steve Hotze, the Houston conservative activist who has launched several lawsuits against Abbott’s coronavirus response that has seen minimal success so far. But in the latest lawsuit, he is joined by not only West and Miller, but also three state senators and four state representatives, as well as the chairman of the Harris County party, Keith Nielsen, and the Republican National Committeeman from Texas, Robin Armstrong.

West, who took over the state party this summer, has openly expressed disagreement with aspects of Abbott’s coronavirus handling, including his statewide mask mandate and the early voting extension. West seemed to telegraph the lawsuit Tuesday, saying in a statement that he would be partnering with Hotze to make election integrity a “top priority.” West said in the same statement that he opposes the “extension of early voting through the decree of a single executive instead of through the legislative process.”

[…]

In addition to making the early voting period longer for the November election, Abbott gave voters more time to turn in their mail-in ballots in person if they choose to do so. Usually those voters are permitted to submit their ballots to the early voting clerk’s office in person instead of mailing them in — but only while polls are open on Election Day. Abbott’s expanded that option to the entire early voting period.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday additionally seeks to stop the extended period for submitting mail ballots in person, also calling the move inconsistent with the election code.

Before we go on, I should note that what was filed was not a lawsuit but a writ of mandamus. Hotze and a smaller crew of jackals had already filed a lawsuit in Travis County district court about a month ago. I presume this writ was filed because they weren’t going to get a ruling in time, and everything is an emergency as far as Hotze is concerned.

The Chron adds some detail.

In the 40-page petition filed Wednesday, the Republicans wrote that the extension was unlawful because the Texas Election Code defines the early voting periods as “the 17th day before election day … through the fourth day before election day,” and the time for in-person submission of mail-in ballots as “only while the polls are open on election day.” The petition seeks to force Secretary of State Ruth Hughs to stick to the timelines in the law.

Hotze has filed a number of lawsuits aimed at Abbott’s COVID-19 emergency orders; in the early voting suit, he again alleges that Abbott does not have the authority, even during a disaster, to suspend laws through executive order. Instead, he says, Abbott should have convened the Legislature.

“If ever a special session was justified, now is the time,” the petition states. “Abbott’s Executive Orders are unprecedented and have had life and death implications, destroyed small businesses and family’s livelihoods, have had a crippling effect on every single community, and now have the ability to impact local, state and national elections. As long as this Court allows it to occur, one person will continue to unilaterally make these decisions under the guise of an unconstitutional statute.”

The lawmakers involved in the suit are state Sens. Charles Perry, Donna Campbell and Pat Fallon and state Reps. Bill Zedler, Cecil Bell, Jr., Steve Toth and Dan Flynn. Additional relators include former state Reps. Matt Rinaldi, Rick Green and Molly White; Harris County Republican Party Chair Keith Nielson; and several other candidates and Republican group leaders.

This story notes the earlier lawsuit. Of interest is the larger group of legislators that have joined in, which distinguishes this action from earlier Hotze/Woodfill joints. Perhaps the election of Allen West, who is as bananas as Hotze, has lent an imprimatur of establishment approval to this kind of rogue action. That said, this is the Hotze clown car we’re talking about, so of course there’s some unintentional comedy involved:

Never stop never stopping, Stevie.

Anyway. You know my opinion on all this – there are some legitimate questions buried under the mountains of palaver, but they are being asked by the worst possible people. I think there’s a strong case to be made that the very nature of our biennial legislature, which is not paid as an occupation but as a temp gig, makes this claim about calling special sessions impossible. It’s just not something that the system is designed to accommodate. My guess is that SCOTX will give this the same reception as they’ve given all of Hotze’s other writs and motions during the COVID times, but you just never know. And I can’t wait to see how Ken Paxton responds to this.

On a side note, this comes as Steve Toth, yet another froth-at-the-mouth type, officially announced that he is unfriending Abbott, which by itself isn’t that interesting but lends some fuel to the speculation that Abbott is going to get a challenger from the far wingnut right in 2022. All I can say to that is that we damn well better have a good candidate ready and waiting for whoever survives that mud fight.

Why wouldn’t Dems attack Abbott for his COVID response?

I am puzzled by the premise of this article.

As the Democratic National Convention opened on Monday, former First Lady Michelle Obama condemned President Donald Trump for having downplayed the coronavirus pandemic and scenes flashed throughout the night from Houston, an epicenter of the crisis.

“Too many are struggling to take care of basic necessities like food and rent,” Obama said. “Too many communities have been left in the lurch to grapple with whether and how to open our schools safely.”

In Texas, Democrats have seized on similar attacks, targeting Gov. Greg Abbott and his ties to the Trump Administration during the pandemic to undermine Republicans down ballot, especially in diverse suburban districts around Houston and Dallas.

While the governor is not on the ballot this year, Democrats have long believed that their best path to retaking the state House this cycle goes through Abbott, a close ally of the Trump Administration and a fundraising juggernaut who has consistently wielded his name and campaign war chest to help struggling GOP candidates cross the finish line in crucial electoral contests.

The pandemic has given them some of the most forceful attacks in years.

Abbott’s “complete and utter mismanagement of this from day one has made this a completely different calculus for us than it was before,” said Abhi Rahman, a spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party. He added, “Everyone is seeing firsthand just how dismal Republicans are at managing a crisis.”

[…]

Whether the criticism against Abbott lands this fall will depend in part on how the health crisis evolves in the coming weeks. Despite his initial haste to reopen businesses, the governor heeded calls to halt further openings and issued a statewide mask mandate, which drew stiff condemnation from his party’s far-right flank.

Abbott has still declined to issue temporary lockdowns or allow officials in the hardest hit regions, especially the Rio Grande Valley, to issue their own. Statewide, new daily infections and hospitalizations are falling, though more slowly than public health officials would hope, especially as schools begin reopening this month.

The governor has allowed school districts to delay in-person instruction, meaning in some counties, students may not return until a week before the election. Public health experts have warned that returning to in-class learning before infections are largely contained could lead to new surges in hospitalizations and deaths.

Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University who is tracking the most competitive Texas House races, said Abbott’s response to the surge this summer was “the most he’s ever bucked the conservative wing of his party.”

“And that’s because he maybe knows that if he hadn’t, Republicans may have lost more in November,” Jones said, adding, “I think for Abbott, a lot will depend on whether the pandemic becomes less severe in the next two months.”

The governor’s approval ratings are the lowest they’ve been since he took office, though he remains well liked by Republicans, according to polls. And Abbott has worked to shore up support within his core constituency of white, older Texans by appearing almost nightly on local TV news outlets.

I mean, obviously the Dems are going to attack Abbott’s response to the pandemic. Even if he had done everything in an objectively optimal manner, even if he wasn’t so closely tied to the dismal failure that is the Trump response to the pandemic, even if there were no complaints about the proper amount of executive power being wielded, there would always be things that could have gone better and could be subject to legitimate criticism. Besides, what other option would Dems have? Largely agreeing with him wouldn’t get them anywhere. You may say well, if he was handling this brilliantly then they shouldn’t be attacking him. I say there’s always room for an opposing perspective, and the critique of this aspect of Abbott’s performance as Governor fits well into other avenues the Dems would like to razz him on.

Attacks aren’t necessarily a positive thing for the attackers. People do generally get a sense for when an attack is unfair and based on lies, so whatever the Dems will be saying needs to be grounded in some valid basis or else it just won’t land. Abbott is also perfectly capable of defending himself and launching his own offensives, thanks to his gazillions of dollars in his campaign treasury. Will Democratic criticism of Abbott’s performance vault someone else into the Governor’s mansion? Maybe, though no matter what happens next that will depend as much on who that person will be as anything else. Nothing is guaranteed, and until Dems win a statewide race it’s all theoretical anyway. But really, what else would they do? It would be political malpractice to not be all over this, and that’s even without all the material Abbott has provided. You’re going to be hearing about this for a long time, so just get used to it.

We don’t need a vote to expand Medicaid

There’s a fundamental truth that needs to be addressed in this.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

On Tuesday, Missouri became the 38th state to expand Medicaid, opening healthcare to over 230,000 Missourians. It joins a lengthy list of GOP-led states in expanding healthcare, including Nebraska, Utah, and Oklahoma. Meanwhile in Texas we still lead the country in the number of uninsured and, since the COVID-19, pandemic another 650,000 have lost their health insurance.

The ballot initiative to expand Medicaid passed in Missouri by 53 percent, with several suburban counties in St. Louis and Kansas City voting overwhelmingly for the measure. The governor of Missouri, a staunch conservative, actually added the ballot initiative to the August primary ballot instead of November’s presidential ballot, hoping a smaller turnout would defeat the measure.

Clearly, the voters of Missouri felt expanding Medicaid was important for their state. The vote also comes as the Trump administration continues its effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, potentially kicking 20 million Americans off their health care and denying preexisting conditions coverage to over 120 million. Both Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton support ending the ACA.

Texas has been in a health crisis for a long time, well after the state decided not to expand Medicaid through the ACA. According to a report from 2018, over 17 percent of Texas residents lacked health coverage. That’s about 5 million Texans without access to health care.

With COVID-19, that health crisis has only exacerbated. While cases and hospitalizations from COVID-19 have gone down in parts of the state, those numbers will likely rise precipitously as schools open. Over 7,000 Texans have died from the coronavirus. Many hospitals, particularly rural ones, are overwhelmed. The health care status quo has never felt so dangerous and untenable.

So will Texas ever get a chance to vote on expanding Medicaid? According to Republican lawmakers in the state, that would be a “no.” Rep. Celia Israel commented on Twitter that she and Rep. John Bucy sponsored a bill in the last legislative session that would allow voters to “weigh in and expand Medicaid,” but that it never got a hearing.

[…]

If Texans do get a chance to vote on expanding Medicaid, it will surely be opposed by Republicans statewide and in the legislature. If history is any guide, however, improving health care will transcend partisan lines.

The people of Missouri voted on the question of expanding Medicaid because the state of Missouri allows for laws to be enacted by referendum. In other words, in the state of Missouri and a number of others, you can collect petition signatures to put a proposed law up for a vote by the people, which is then enacted if it passes. Different states have different rules for this, but that’s the basic idea. The city of Houston allows for charter amendments to be put up for a vote via the petition process, which is always a fun thing to endure. For better or worse, the state of Texas does not allow for this.

The key thing to understand here is that the folks who pushed Medicaid expansion in Missouri via referendum did so for the explicit purpose of bypassing Missouri’s legislature and governor, both of which opposed Medicaid expansion. Most states early on passed Medicaid expansion via their legislatures, including some Republican states, but in recent years most of the action has come via the ballot box, in states like Idaho and Nebraska and Oklahoma. The key ingredients there were a combination of legislators and governors that opposed expanding Medicaid, and a petition process that allowed for the legislative process to be circumvented.

So if you’ve wondered why if those states can vote to expand Medicaid why can’t Texas, the answer is because the law doesn’t allow for it. It can only be done via the Legislature. Indeed, bills to do some form of Medicaid expansion have been proposed but have not gotten anywhere. The reason for that of course is intransigent Republican opposition, but guess what: The Democrats have a shot at taking the majority in the State House this year (as you may have heard), which would overcome one of those obstacles. We’d still need to take the Senate and elect a new Governor to finish the job, but at the very least the House could pass a Medicaid expansion bill, or put something for it in the budget, and dare the Senate and Greg Abbott to oppose it. I for one would be fine with having the 2022 Governor’s race be defined in large part by expanding Medicaid (in addition to, you know, COVID-19 response).

If that’s the case, then what was Rep. Israel tweeting about? Very simply, it was a political move to try to force the issue in a slightly different way. What Reps. Israel and Bucy proposed was a Constitutional amendment, which is something that the voters have to approve, which would have expanded Medicaid. Why propose a Constitutional amendment, which requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers, instead of a regular old bill that needs only a simple majority? Three reasons: One, constitutional amendments do not need the governor’s approval, so it would go to the voters regardless of what Greg Abbott wanted. Two, it offered Republican legislators who opposed Medicaid expansion but might have felt the need to do something a way out, as in “just vote to let the people decide, and we’ll never bother you about it again”. And three, constitutional amendments can only be changed or repealed by subsequent constitutional amendments, with their two-thirds-majority requirements, thus protecting Medicaid expansion via this avenue from the whims of a future Republican legislature.

The point is, though, we don’t need to vote to expand Medicaid. At least, we don’t need to vote on a ballot proposition to do it. We just need to vote for a Legislature and a Governor who are willing to do it. We’re a lot closer to that than we’ve ever been, and we’re closer to it than states like Missouri and Idaho and Nebraska and Oklahoma had any hope of being. The votes we need to expand Medicaid are this November, and November of 2022. Those are the prizes to keep your eyes on.

Another lawsuit against Abbott over emergency orders

This one is a bit more serious due to the lack of Hotze and Woodfill, but it’s still not a great way to have the debate about this issue.

Five Republican Texas lawmakers are suing Gov. Greg Abbott over the state’s $295 million COVID-19 contact tracing contract to a small, little-known company, alleging the agreement is unconstitutional because it wasn’t competitively bid and because the funds should have been appropriated by the Legislature in a special session.

In the Travis Country district court suit filed Monday, State Reps. Mike Lang, Kyle Biederman, William Zedler, Steve Toth and state Sen. Bob Hall named as defendants Abbott, the Texas Department of State Health Services and the company awarded the contract, the Frisco-based MTX Group.

Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton have defended the contract. Abbott did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The lawmakers are seeking a court order voiding the contract for lack of statutory authorization and deeming unconstitutional the governor’s application of the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which gives him broad powers in the case of an emergency, in granting the contract.

“The Texas Constitution requires a separation of powers, and that separation leaves policy-making decisions with the Texas Legislature,” the lawsuit states. “These decisions are not changed by pandemics.”

Abbott has declined to convene a special session since March when the coronavirus pandemic began, instead leaning on his emergency powers to issue a series of sweeping executive orders governing what businesses can open, where people can gather in public, and mandating safety measures including wearing face coverings in public.

While the law has been used by governors for years, the time span of the coronavirus-related orders is unprecedented and raises questions about the durability of that legal justification.

As the story notes, the Supreme Court just rejected several Hotze lawsuits relating to executive emergency powers, saying he lacked standing. I don’t know if that is likely to be an issue in this case or not. I still agree with the basic premise that we need to have a robust debate about the parameters of the Texas Disaster Act, including when the Governor should be compelled to call a special session so that the Lege can be involved in the decision-making process. I also still think that this is a lousy way to have that debate, and while these five legislators have more gravitas than Hotze, that’s a low bar to clear. To put it another way, the anti-face mask and quarantine lobby still isn’t sending their best.

There’s no doubt that the contact tracng deal was a boondoggle, and I welcome all scrutiny on it. And I have to admit, as queasy as I am with settling these big questions about emergency powers by litigation, there isn’t much legislators can do on their own, given that they’re not in session and can’t be in session before January unless Abbott calls them into a session. I’m not sure what the right process for this should have been, given the speed and urgency of the crisis. The Lege very much needs to address these matters in the spring, but I’m leery of making any drastic changes to the status quo before then. In some ways, this is the best argument I’ve seen against our tradition of having a Legislature that only meets every two years. Some things just can’t wait, and we shouldn’t have to depend on the judgment of the Governor to fill in the gaps. I hope some of the brighter lights in our Legislature are thinking about all this. The Trib has more.

Going after Abbott

Forward thinking is always good to see.

Hoping to harness the opposition to Gov. Greg Abbott’s handling of the coronavirus, several Texas Democratic strategists are launching a new political group to defeat him in 2022.

Their group, the Beat Abbott PAC, will raise money that will ultimately go to the Democratic nominee against Abbott in 2022, when he is up for a third term. Along the way, the PAC aims to build a small-dollar donor list that can help Democrats in the next election cycle and “hold Abbott accountable for his failure on COVID,” according to an announcement first shared with The Texas Tribune.

The PAC’s board includes Tory Gavito, president and co-founder of Way to Win; Ginny Goldman, founder and former executive director of the Texas Organizing Project; Zack Malitz, co-founder of Real Justice PAC and statewide field director for Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 U.S. Senate campaign; and Derrick Osobase, a veteran labor and political operative.

“We’re done listening to a Governor willing to let people die in order to maintain his good graces with the likes of Donald Trump and the right-wing of the Republican party,” Malitz, the PAC’s treasurer, said in a statement. “People in this state deserve better than a corrupt talking head who looks out only for himself and the one-percent. It’s time to beat him.”

[…]

Early speculation about potential Democratic challengers to Abbott in 2022 has centered on O’Rourke and either U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, or his twin brother, former presidential candidate Julián Castro. All three have been outspoken critics of his coronavirus response.

O’Rourke did not rule out a run in a late April interview, while Julián Castro, the former U.S. housing secretary and San Antonio mayor, held open the possibility during a Texas Tribune event Wednesday.

Castro told Tribune CEO Evan Smith that he is not currently thinking about running for office again, but when Smith asked if Castro was removing himself from consideration for the 2022 governor’s race, Castro flatly said no.

“I’m not aiming for anything right now, but I’ll see what happens in terms of whether I feel like I could add something and I want to run for office in the future,” Castro said. “I might.”

You can follow Beat Abbott on Twitter, of course. We know that the one thing Greg Abbott is really good at is building up a huge campaign treasury, so raising money to oppose him now makes all kinds of sense. It’s going to take tens of millions of dollars to do this. As for who to run against him, I’ve been at the front of the Julian 2022 parade for some time now, and he remains my first choice for that race. Beto’s a fine backup option, but you’re not going to be able to convince me that Julian isn’t the candidate with the best shot at winning. The sooner someone throws even an exploratory hat into the ring the better, so let’s have a PAC that will have their back ready to go by then.

Abbott’s approval rating

This has gotten a bit of chatter, so let’s take a closer look.

We released the remaining results of the June 2020 UT/Texas Politics Project Poll today. This post focuses on Texans’ assessment of the state’s political leaders, the state of the economy in Texas, and the direction the state is headed.

The poll also included results on attitudes on the coronavirus and the ongoing response; race, policing, and recent protests; and the national economy and political landscape. There are links to a summary of all results and a crosstab file at the top of this page. As always, these files are available in the Texas Politics Project polling data archive, along with a data file and codebook. All the graphics in this post as well as hundreds of others from the June poll are available at the archive and at our “latest poll” page.

Governor Greg Abbott’s job approval rating dropped just below 50% approval – though at 49%, just below – for the first time in two years, an 7-point decline since the April UT/Texas Tribune Poll, while disapproval of his job performance increased from 32% in both February and April polling to 39% in June.

Abbott’s 56% overall job approval in April represented the highwater mark of his governorship, seemingly buoyed by relatively high approval from Democrats, 24% of whom approved of the job he was doing in the early stages of the state’s attempts to grapple with COVID-19. In the meantime, Abbott reopened Texas, but has since been forced to batten down the hatches when the opening contributed to a resurgence of the virus. His approval numbers among Democrats sagged to 13%, with 74% disapproving – 51% disapproving strongly – the highest disapproval rate among Democrats of his governorship.

Abbott’s approval rating among Republicans decreased from 88% to 83% over the same period, remaining within a long established band, and a sign that carping from far-right opinion leaders, grass tops groups, and a small handful of state legislators does not seem to be rampant among his base.

Approval of Abbott’s handling of the coronavirus/COVID-19 was approximate to his overall job approval rating: 49% approved and 41% disapproved. However, this represented a significant decline from his April ratings in which 56% expressed approval compared to only 29% who disapproved.

You should click over to see the charts. Oddly, Abbott registered a 48% approval rating, against 34% disapproval, in their February poll, so that sentence about “first time in two years” is not accurate, but whatever. If you look at the trend lines, Abbott’s approval rating in this poll was remarkably stable, either 51% or 52% all through 2018 and 2019, before dipping to 48% then jumping to 56% and sliding back to 49% in the three polls so far this year. If you look at it that way, over the longer term, 49% isn’t really out of line – the 56% result is the outlier – though the 39% disapproval is a new high. The last two results have the lowest “don’t know/no opinion” responses, which may also be driving these extremes for him.

You know my mantra about polls: This is just one result. What have the other polls said about Abbott’s approval rating lately? I’m glad you asked:

UT/Trib, July 2

Trump 46 approve, 48 disapprove
Abbott 49 approve, 39 disapprove

Fox, June 25

Trump 50 approve, 48 disapprove
Abbott 63 approve, 32 disapprove

Quinnipiac, June 3

Trump 45 approve, 50 disapprove
Abbott 56 approve, 32 disapprove

Emerson, May 13

Trump 46 approve, 44 disapprove
Abbott 54 approve, 32 disapprove

There have been several PPP polls of Texas in this time frame, but alas, none of them have asked about Greg Abbott, so this is all we have. This will I hope reinforce my point that the UT/Trib poll is but one result, and we’re going to need more data points before we can draw any conclusions. It would be nice to think that Abbott is justifiably suffering for his crappy response to coronavirus, but it’s too soon to tell.

That said, Ross Ramsey makes a good point.

If Abbott were on the ballot this year, he’d face real competition — even in a Republican Party primary. Former state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas has been on the speaking circuit since before the pandemic, telling crowds about what he sees as a fake conservative government dominated by Republicans in Austin.

The new conservative phenom, Shelley Luther of Pilot Point, is still on the hustings months after her protest of Abbott’s business shutdowns, her jailing and the opening of her Dallas salon — the reasons that we know her name. She recently said at an Austin rally that she’s thinking about a run for office.

And there’s always Patrick, the lieutenant governor whose strength with small government and social conservatives has always worked as a restraint against Abbott siding with the party’s moderates.

All that is to say nothing of the Democrats, who, amid a generational change in top talent, have built a bench of candidates in local government, a crew that includes officeholders like Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, both of whom insisted the governor was too quick to relax his efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus, and both of whom have been at odds with him about pushing for tougher measures to slow it now.

[…]

It’s too early to handicap 2022; we don’t know what’s going to happen in the elections four months from now. But it’s not too early to scan the field, to see whether the issues are bending to the advantage of incumbents or potential challengers.

Change comes fast, too: At the beginning of this year, Abbott looked strong, with a great economy, a sound state budget and only the early rumblings of a worldwide pandemic.

And now? That early stability has evaporated, and the politics have become more treacherous.

It’s a long way to 2022, and in between is a legislative session where Abbott can woo back the crazies or try to get stuff done to bolster his image with everyone else. A lot can happen, and Abbott has a smart political team who are seeing the same things we are. But at least there’s hope. The Texas Signal has more.

(If you scroll down a little further on that UT/Texas Politics Project page, you’ll see that Dan Patrick’s approval rating has been headed towards negative territory, and is considerably worse than where it was just before the last election, which he barely won. So we have that going for us, which is nice. But again, always be wary of single data points.)

2020 Primary Runoff Early Voting, Second Tuesday: A history of Democratic primary runoffs

Yesterday I said that the turnout so far in the 2020 Democratic primary runoff was already historic. Today I’m going to show my work on that. Herewith is the 21st century history of Democratic primary runoff turnout for Harris County:


Year    Turnout  Top race
=========================
2002     64,643    Senate
2006     12,542    Senate
2008      9,670       RRC
2010     15,225  Judicial
2012     29,912    Senate
2014     18,828    Senate
2016     30,334       RRC
2018     57,590  Governor
2020     72,838    Senate

The only primary runoff on the ballot in 2004 was for Constable in Precinct 7. We’ve come a long way, and please don’t forget that. We had just nudged past that 2002 mark as of yesterday, and now we are putting distance between it and this year. I didn’t include mail ballots in this accounting for two reasons. One, they didn’t quantify mail ballots in 2002, and two, this year is way off the charts compared to years prior. 2018 and 2016 are the only reasonable comps, and they both fall well short, with 19,472 mail ballots in 2018 and 11,433 in 2016. We had each of those beat on Day One.

With that, here’s the chart for this year as of today:


Election     Mail    Early   Total   Mail %
===========================================
D primary  18,503   54,325  72,828    25.4%
R primary  19,690   47,271  66,961    29.4%

D runoff   38,026   34,812  72,838    52.2%
R runoff   22,351   10,215  32,566    68.6%

The Tuesday runoff EV file is here, and the final EV turnout report from March is here. Second week Tuesday was the first big turnout day for the primary, and where Dems started separating from Republicans overall. This Tuesday was by a small amount the biggest day so far for Dems, though Monday had a slightly higher in person count. This is undoubtedly where the March turnout begins to exceed the July turnout, but this runoff is now officially leaving all previous primary runoffs in the dust.

How Texas screwed it all up

That’s a more succinct headline for this story about how Texas went from having a low COVID-19 infection rate to one of the worst in the country. And the vast majority of the responsibility for this is on Greg Abbott.

In Houston, the largest medical campus in the world has exceeded its base intensive care capacity. In the Rio Grande Valley, elected officials pleaded this week for military intervention to avoid a “humanitarian crisis.” And in several major cities, testing sites are overrun, with appointments disappearing in minutes and hundreds waiting in line for hours.

Eight weeks ago, the White House lauded Texas as a model for containing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to reopen the economy has unraveled as the state struggles to contain one of the worst outbreaks in the country.

“We’re on the verge of a nightmarish catastrophe,” said Vivian Ho, a health economist at Rice University and the Baylor College of Medicine. “On May 1, I thought we actually had a chance to get this virus under control and get the economy opened up safely. I’m not sure we can get it under control anymore.”

Public health experts say the worst of the crisis was avoidable in Texas, where Abbott stripped local officials of the ability to manage their own outbreaks and until Thursday refused to mandate masks and other basic mitigation practices. The governor reopened before the state could adequately monitor the virus, health experts said, then ignored signs in late May that infections were beginning to run rampant.

“That is the point at which you say hang on a sec, we’re staying where we are, and are probably taking a step back to understand the scale of the problem here,” said Bill Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Without the tools in place to test quickly for infections and track those exposed, authorities believe the state was left blinded as the virus spread among younger Texans, who are less likely to develop symptoms.

Spokesmen for Abbott and state Health Commissioner Dr. John Hellerstadt did not respond to requests for comment. Asked at a televised town hall Thursday why he had not mandated masks sooner, the governor said the “data was only recently bad.”

“It was only in the past couple of weeks that we saw this spike in people testing positive,” Abbott said.

[…]

On April 27, Abbott said he would reopen the state in phases based on data and guidance from medical professionals, pledging not to simply “open up and hope for the best.”

His advisers laid out four criteria to guide the reopening: a two-week reduction in cases, hospital capacity for all patients, the ability to to conduct 30,000 daily viral tests and hire 4,000 contact tracers.

Abbott, however, did not commit to following them. Only in mid-June would the state begin meeting its testing goal. It has yet to hire enough contact tracers or see a sustained drop in infections.

He said the plan was designed to be applied regionally, with lighter restrictions imposed in areas with few cases, then overruled officials from large counties who tried to enact more restrictive edicts.

Abbott punctuated that point by effectively gutting Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s April 22 mask order when he stripped the ability of local governments to punish residents who violated such mandates.

Several prominent Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, had condemned Hidalgo’s order and its potential $1,000 fine as an abuse of power. They have continued to argue that the severity of the virus is being embellished, and some have even questioned whether masks are effective at stopping it from spreading.

The mask debate — which took another turn Thursday when Abbott issued his own statewide mandate — has sent mixed messages that may have left residents with the impression that face coverings are unimportant, said Dr. Gregory Tasian, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

“Without a clear direction from the state level, some of those masking policies become much less effective,” Tasian said.

There’s more, but you get the idea. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, Abbott never made any effort to meet those four metrics that he himself and his vaunted “Strike Force” laid out. (By the way, when was the last time you saw a news story about COVID-19 in Texas refer to the “Strike Force”?) Each time he relaxed another part of the previous restrictions in order to push reopening further, I pointed out that we had no plan and no reason to proceed as if everything was going to plan. All we had was hope and distraction, and look where that has gotten us. The extremely “mixed messages” (to put it lightly) about masking and social distancing was another huge problem, one that also didn’t have to happen. I get that Abbott felt pressure from Donald Trump and from the screaming howler monkeys of our state like Dan Patrick, but for Christ’s sake he’s the Governor, he’s got a gazillion dollars in his campaign treasury and by far the highest approval ratings of anyone in the state, and it’s his fucking job to be a leader. He failed at that at every step of the way.

What’s even more appalling is that he already had a model that was working for him, and that was to get out of the way of the local leaders, who were uniformly ahead of him on all the mitigation steps we first took back in March. It would have been perfectly consistent with his stated belief that some parts of the state needed more restrictions than others to let Lina Hidalgo and the other county judges impose face mask orders and keep a tighter rein on businesses as they saw fit. I believe it would have been politically expedient for him as well, since the raging assholes would have aimed all their fury and lawsuits at them instead of at him. It was when he caved in the most cowardly way possible to Shelley Luther, who was being held accountable to HIS OWN EXECUTIVE ORDER by a Dallas County judge that we all should have known what was coming next. Sure is funny how the cries for “law and order” get silenced when it’s a white suburbanite being taken to court.

I also want to note the bit in this story about nobody on Team Abbott responding to requests for comment. Another hallmark of this crisis, which has been a recurring theme of the Abbott reign in general, has been the way he operates in a closed and non-transparent fashion. He does the things he does, on his own and in consultation with no one outside his bubble, with no mechanism for feedback or consideration of other perspectives. I can’t help but think that this style has not done him any favors lately, and I expect it will result in a Legislature that doesn’t feel much need to defer to him or his priorities in 2021, and that’s even if the Republicans manage to hang onto the House. And, as some people have speculated, he could be headed for a challenge from the right in the 2022 primary. I doubt that my own preferences here would do anything to dissuade such a challenger. But a better outcome from the pandemic might go a long way towards shoring up his political position.

So here we are, and as bad as things are right now, they are certain to get worse in the short term, because that’s the way this virus operates. If we’re very lucky, the mask order and mild dialing back of reopening might make things be less bad. But it’s going to be bad. And it didn’t have to be. It’s Greg Abbott’s fault that it is.

Hotze versus contact tracing

We should have expected this.

Conservative firebrand Steven Hotze has launched another lawsuit challenging Gov. Greg Abbott’s coronavirus response, joined by current and former lawmakers and several hundred business owners who argue the state’s contact tracing program infringes on their privacy and ability to make a living.

The civil action filed Monday in federal court takes on the disparate operating capacities the governor mandated in his “COVID-19 lottery,” claiming Abbott’s actions have limited restaurants and bars with 25 or 50 percent limits, while bicycle shops, liquor stores, pool cleaners and supermarkets are running at full tilt.

[…]

The lawsuit by Hotze includes nearly 1,500 names. Most are small business owners, but topping the list are state Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, former Republican state representatives Gary Elkins, of Houston, Molly White, of Bell County, Rick Green, of Hays County, and former party chair Cathie Adams, of Collin County.

The suit argues that Texas’ $295 million contract tracing program — aimed at tracking down all people exposed to an infected person — violates the first amendment, privacy, due process and equal protection provisions. Such tracking amounts to an illegal, warrantless search, the suit says. While tracing back contacts is supposed to be voluntary, it is enforced through local health departments based on a presumption of guilt for all people in proximity to a sick person, according to the lawsuit. It requires people to turn over names, call in with their temperature readings and assumes a person has COVID-19 unless they can prove otherwise, Woodfill said.

Woodfill said he believes this is the first federal challenge to contact tracing. He hopes it will set the tone for “how we as a government and as a people will deal with diseases that we don’t have a vaccine for yet.”

Yes, of course that’s Jared Woodfill, joined at the hip as ever with Hotze on these things. We had the original lawsuit against Harris County, over the stay-at-home order. That was then followed by the lawsuit against Abbott and Paxton over the statewide stay-at-home order, for which there is now an emergency petition before the State Supreme Court. Another lawsuit against Harris County was filed over Judge Hidalgo’s face mask order, a subject that may soon be relevant again. That one too has a motion before the Supreme Court for an emergency ruling. I am not aware of any rulings in any of these lawsuits, but sooner or later something will happen. Abbott’s contact tracing plan is full of problems, and as I’ve said before there are legitimate questions to be raised about Abbott’s various orders during this pandemic. For sure, the Lege should try to clarify matters in 2021. I would just greatly prefer to have these legitimate questions get asked by legitimate people, not con men and grifters. That’s not the world we live in, unfortunately.

All this got me to thinking: Why doesn’t Hotze announce that he’s running for Governor in 2022? He clearly has some strong opinions about the way the state is supposed to be run, and in doing so he has some stark disagreements with Greg Abbott. Just as clearly, he has some support among the wingnut fringe for those differing opinions. It seems unlikely he could win – among other things, Abbott has a gazillion dollars in his campaign treasury – but he could force a dialogue on his issues, and very likely could bring some real pressure on Abbott. He’s also the kind of preening egotist who’d think he’s got The People behind him. I’m just idly speculating, and maybe trying to stir up some trouble. I can’t help but think that this is the biggest public example of Republican-on-Republican rhetorical violence since Carole Keeton Strayhorn was Rick Perry’s main nemesis. (I’m not counting Kay Bailey Hutchison’s primary against Perry in 2010, since she barely showed up for it.) I don’t really think this is where Hotze is going, but if he does do something like this, would you be surprised? At this point, I would not be.

A bipartisan equality bill

I appreciate the effort, but we can’t expect too much to come of this.

Five Democratic and two Republican state legislators announced plans Wednesday to file a bill next legislative session that would bar discrimination against LGBTQ Texans in housing, employment and public spaces.

The bill, which has the early support of state Reps. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, and Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, would extend protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. There are 21 states that already have enacted such policies.

“Quite frankly, we are already behind the curve on this issue,” Davis said. “Nondiscrimination is not just good for LGBTQ community, but it’s good for all Texans.”

Lawmakers rolled out the bill during a virtual news conference where they touted an economic study that found a statewide nondiscrimination policy would generate $738 million in state revenue and $531 million in local government revenue next biennium. It also would add 180,000 new jobs in technology and tourism by 2025, the study found. The benefits, the authors said, largely would come from Texas’ greater ability to attract talent and heightened opportunity for tourism and conventions.

“We should want to treat people fairly because it’s the right thing to do, whether it has economic effects or not,” said Ray Perryman, a Waco-based economist who led the study. “This shouldn’t be the reason to do it, but it is a very important aspect of it in today’s society, and there are very significant economic costs associated with discrimination.”

The legislation likely will face strong headwinds in the Republican-controlled Senate. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the upper chamber, prominently opposed a similar measure that was rejected by Houston voters in 2015, and later backed the so-called bathroom bill opposed by LGBTQ advocates that would have required people to use facilities matching the gender identity on their birth certificates.

The lawmakers largely dismissed political concerns Wednesday, arguing instead that their early push for the bill — more than seven months before the session is slated to begin — heightens their odds of passing it.

“I think a lot of this is going to take talking to our colleagues and explaining the results of this study,” said Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, a member of the House LGBTQ Caucus and author of the bill. “It’s going to take a lot of groundwork.”

[…]

The bill faces good odds of passing the lower chamber, where Democrats have gained ground and some Republicans have moderated their positions, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. He was less bullish on the bill’s chances in the Senate.

“It’s a different animal on that side of the chamber,” Rottinghaus said. “You do all the political calculations and it’s a tall order to get it passed. But, in some ways it’s a marker: these members see the future of Texas as one where the economy needs to be put front and center, and if that theory can get some grip among the members, then there’s hope for it in the future. But as it is now, it’s a pretty tough sell.”

That’s really about all there is to it. This bill may pass the House, but if so then Dan Patrick will stick it in a shredder, have the shredder blown up by the bomb squad, and then have the debris shipped to Oklahoma. We ain’t getting a bill like this passed while he’s Lite Guv, and that’s even before we consider getting it signed and then having it reasonably enforced by the Attorney General. It’s nice that there are two House Republicans willing to sign on to this – no, really, that is important and could very well matter if we oust Patrick in 2022 but still have a Republican-controlled Senate – but it will take either more of them than that to get this passed, or fewer Republicans in the House overall. I don’t know who our next Speaker will be, but I like the odds of this passing with a Democrat appointing committee chairs than with pretty much any Republican that could inherit the gavel. Needless to say, one way of getting the requisite number of Dems in the House is to oust Sarah Davis, as her seat is high on the list of pickup possibilities. Todd Hunter’s HD32 is on that list as well, but farther down; if he loses in November, Dems have had a very, very good day.

Let’s be clear that lots of substantive bills take more than one session to get passed, so bringing this up now even without any assurance that it could get out of committee is the right call. Start talking about this now – the real benefits a true equality bill would bring, the ridiculous arguments that opponents will throw at it, and very importantly the potential legal pitfalls that the true wingnuts and their sympathetic judges will try to exploit – and we’ll be better positioned when the timing is better. I can’t say when that might be – elections have consequences, I’m told – but it’s best to be prepared.

The fight over sick leave has to be at the state level

I get this, but it’s not going to work.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The coronavirus outbreak is sparking a debate over paid sick leave in Houston, the largest U.S. city without a law requiring businesses to provide paid time off for workers who fall ill.

Labor leaders say the COVID-19 pandemic has bolstered their argument for a paid leave mandate, arguing such a policy would slow community spread of the disease here.

Mayor Sylvester Turner largely has ignored the push, making clear he will not take action on paid sick leave while the health and economic crisis continues to play out.

“Right now, the private sector is hurting, just like the public sector is hurting,” Turner said in an interview. “Businesses are taking it on the chin, and that’s been across the board: small, medium-sized, large. So, let’s get past this crisis, and then we’ll have an opportunity to have a robust discussion on the other side.”

As Houston and Harris County residents pass a month of stay-at-home restrictions to prevent local hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with patients, Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo are coming under intensifying pressure from business owners on the one hand who say they cannot survive more weeks of forced closures, and health officials on the other who say coronavirus testing remains too scarce to drop the restrictions.

Labor advocates and health experts have warned that many employees who lack paid sick leave will skirt federal guidelines and show up to work when they are ill because they cannot afford the lost wages from missing even a few days of work. Without a paid sick leave mandate, they say, “essential” Houston workers remain uncovered if their employers do not offer it and are exempted from a federal coronavirus paid leave package that contains broad loopholes.

“There is clear evidence from states and cities across the country that when workers have access to paid sick days, they’re more likely to stay home and take care of themselves,” said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow for paid leave policy at the Washington, D.C., think tank New America.

[…]

Austin, Dallas and San Antonio have passed ordinances mandating paid sick leave, and each has been blocked or delayed by legal challenges that allege Texas’ minimum wage law preempts the ordinances.

Dallas’ paid sick leave policy, which would require employers to grant one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours an employee works, was halted by a federal judge March 30, two days before penalties for non-compliant businesses would have taken effect.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that now is a bad time for businesses to be asked to bear an extra expense. I’m even more sympathetic to the argument that now is a really really bad time to incentivize sick people to go to work. The problem is that as things stand now, there’s nothing the city of Houston can do about it. We could pass a sick leave ordinance, either by Council action or by referendum, and it would be immediately blocked by the courts, as it has been in those other cities. The only way forward is to change the state minimum wage law that is being interpreted by the courts as forbidding local sick leave measures. That’s not something that can be done in the short term. A Democratic-led House could pass such a bill next year, but as long as Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton are in office, it won’t go any farther than that.

So, as unsatisfying as it is to say, we have to win some more elections first before we can make this happen. The good news is that this is the best time imaginable to make the argument in favor of paid sick leave. The case for having sick workers stay home rather than infecting everyone they encounter has never been more clear, and likely will never be better received by the voters. Let the Republicans defend that position. There’s very much a fight to be had, and that’s where we need to have it.

UT/Trib: Trump 49, Biden 44

Our first post-primary poll.

Donald Trump would beat Joe Biden by five points in Texas if the presidential race were held now, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

In a Trump-Biden contest, Democratic and Republican voters overwhelmingly back their own party’s candidate. But independent voters are on the fence, with 39% favoring Trump, 29% favoring Biden and 32% saying they haven’t formed an opinion.

The five point difference in support — 44% for Biden, 49% for Trump — is in line with previous UT/TT Polls taken before Democrats had settled on a nominee. In November 2019, the president was 7 percentage points ahead of Biden in a hypothetical general election matchup. In the February survey — conducted shortly before the presidential primaries in Texas and before the coronavirus outbreak was widespread — the two candidates were 4 percentage points apart. In all three of the most recent surveys, Trump’s lead was small, but outside the margins of error; none of the results could be called a statistical tie.

Trump has a harder race against himself. Ask Texans whether they would vote today to re-elect the president and, as they have done in four previous UT/TT polls, they split down the middle: 50% say they would vote for him, 49% said they’d vote against him.

Among Republican voters, 81% say they would definitely vote for Trump, and another 11% say they probably would. Democratic voters are just the opposite, with 85% definitely planning to vote for someone else, and 9% probably planning to. Most independent voters — 61% — would vote for someone else, while 39% say they’d vote for the president.

It’s only when you add Biden to the mix that Trump pulls ahead. “When you put a flesh-and-blood opponent against them, they do better,” said Daron Shaw, co-director of the poll and a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Here’s the previous UT/Trib poll, from February, and here’s four other poll results from just before the primary. Those were indeed the last polls taken, according to FiveThirtyEight. Biden has been closer in some polls and a little farther back in some others. There are probably still a few Dems who are in the “don’t know/no opinion” bucket right now, as was definitely the case during the primary campaign, so he ought to inch up a bit all else being equal.

The main thing I will note is that not only does Biden start out scoring higher than Hillary Clinton did in 2016 – she only reached as high as 44% in two polls the whole cycle – he’s also above where Beto was in 2018. Beto only reached the 44% mark once before August, then was pretty consistently at or above it after that. Beto was still a fairly unknown candidate at this point in 2018, and his rise later was a sign that he was genuinely growing his support. I said this a few times during that cycle that while we had seen occasional polls that showed a Democrat “close” to a Republican statewide, the actual numbers would usually be something like 42-36, with a ton of “don’t know/no opinion” answers. It was truly rare before 2018 to see a Dem score as much as 42 or 43 percent in a poll, let alone 44 or 45. Wendy Davis in 2014 and Barack Obama in 2012 seldom touched 40 percent. For good reason, it turned out – Davis finished at 39%, Obama at 41. Seeing Biden start out at 44 is a sign that the gains Dems made in 2018 seem to be durable, and while we may not win statewide again, we’ll have enough of a share of the vote to do some damage downballot, as we did then. Winning the Texas House, and picking up some Congressional seats, is likely going to depend on Biden at least coming close to the 48% Beto got in 2018. The polling we have so far, which goes back to those pre-primary polls, suggests this is within range. The rest is up to us.

Does getting to 40% make you likely to win the runoff?

Anna Eastman

I was talking with some fellow political nerds last week, and one of the topics was the forthcoming runoffs. As is usually the case, this year we have some runoffs between candidates who finished fairly close together in round one, and some in which one candidate has a clear lead based on the initial election. The consensus we had was that candidates in the latter category, especially those who topped 40% on Super Tuesday, are basically locks to win in May. The only counter-example we could think of off the tops of our heads was Borris Miles beating Al Edwards, who had been at 48%, in the 2006 runoff for HD146.

So, later on I spent a few minutes on the Secretary of State election archive pages, looking through past Democratic primary results and tracking those where the leader had more than forty percent to see who went on to win in the runoff. Here’s what I found:

2018

Winners – CD03, CD10, CD23, CD31, Governor, SD17,
Losers – CD27, HD37, HD45, HD64, HD109*, HD133*

2016

Winners – CD15, HD27
Losers – SBOE6

2014

Winners – Senate, SBOE13
Losers – HD105

2012
Winners – CD34, HD95, HD137
Losers – CD23*, SBOE2

2010
Winners – CD10, HD76*

2008
Winners – CD32, RRC

2006
Winners – Senate, Lt Gov, HD42, HD47*
Losers – HD146

In each of the cited races, the leading candidate had at least 40% of the primary vote. Races that have asterisks indicate that the runnerup also had at least 40%. As you can see, up until 2018, having forty percent or more in the primary was indeed a pretty good indicator of success in overtime. The last cycle provided quite a few counterexamples, however, including one incumbent (Rene Oliveira, who had been busted for a DWI earlier) who went down. So maybe 40% isn’t such a magical number, or maybe it’s harder now than it was before 2012. Or maybe this is just a really small sample and we should be careful about drawing broad conclusions from it.

Fortunately, we have quite a few races this year to add to this sample:

CD03 – Lulu Seikaly 44.5%, Sean McCaffity 43.8%
CD10 – Mike Siegel 44.0%, Pritesh Gandhi 33.1%
CD13 – Gus Trujillo 42.2%, Greg Sagan 34.7%
CD17 – Rick Kennedy 47.9%, David Jaramillo 35.0%
CD24 – Kim Olson 40.9%, Candace Valenzuela 30.4%
SBOE6 – Michelle Palmer 46.8%, Kimberly McLeod 34.6%
SD19 – Xochil Pena Rodriguez 43.7%, Roland Gutierrez 37.3%
SD27 – Eddie Lucio 49.8%, Sara Stapleton-Barrera 35.6%
HD119 – Liz Campos 46.1%, Jennifer Ramos 43.7%
HD138 – Akilah Bacy 46.7, Jenifer Pool 29.3%
HD142 – Harold Dutton 45.2%, Jerry Davis 25.3%
HD148 – Anna Eastman 41.6%, Penny Shaw 22.1%
138th District Court – Gabby Garcia 48.0%, Helen Delgadillo 31.0%
164th District Court – Cheryl Elliott Thornton 41.3%, Alexandra Smoots-Thomas 33.1%

I’ll be sure to do an update in May, when we can see if the leading candidates mostly held serve or not. Place your bets.

We’re not going to get an independent redistricting commission

Nice to think about, but the set of circumstances that might lead to it are exceedingly narrow.

Most of the seven states that have independent commissions adopted them by a citizens’ initiative. Since Texas doesn’t have that option, the only way it would happen would be if lawmakers voluntarily gave up their redistricting power.

Kathay Feng, national redistricting director of the progressive government watchdog group Common Cause, said that’s unlikely to happen in Texas, but not impossible.

“The reality is that when a legislature is looking at potentially split control or the changeover of control from one party to another, they’re the most likely to entertain the possibility of redistricting reform,” Feng said.

Rice University political science professor Mark Jones said it would take a unique set of circumstances.

“It would take us reaching a tipping point where Republicans are pessimistic about their prospects for retaining a majority, but Democrats are also pessimistic about their prospects for taking a majority as well,” Jones said.

I think Jones’ assessment is basically accurate, but it’s important to understand what Republican pessimism about retaining a majority means. We’re talking about them being afraid that they might face unified Democratic government in 2031, the next time redistricting will come around. And not only must they fear this thing that might happen ten years and three statewide elections from now, they must conclude that their best option now would be to curb that future theoretical Democratic hegemony via the creation of an independent redistricting commission. All this happens following a Democratic takeover of the State House, because otherwise Republicans can do what they’ve done before, which is draw whatever districts they want without fear. You see what I mean by exceedingly narrow?

Let’s keep one other thing in mind here. If we do get a Democratic State House, Republicans can still push for whatever maps they want for the SBOE, the State Senate, and the State House. That’s because if the two chambers can’t agree on maps for those three entities, the job gets thrown to the Legislative Redistricting Board, which is the Lite Governor, the Speaker, the AG, the Comptroller, and the Land Commissioner. In other words, a Board on which Republicans would have a 4-1 majority, and thus no trouble passing those Republican maps. The one map that would still be up in the air would be the Congressional map. If there is no map passed legislatively, it gets thrown to a federal court, over which neither side would have any control.

There is room in this scenario for some compromise. Republicans would prefer not to let a court do this work. Democrats would of course like to have some influence in the mapmaking process. You can imagine an agreement to draw maps for all four entities – Congress, SBOE, Senate, House – that leans towards incumbent protection rather than greatly advantaging or disadvantaging one party over the other. If that happens, you could also imagine them including an independent commission as a bonus Grand Bargain, but that seems a bridge too far. But compromise maps that mostly don’t make any incumbents’ lives too difficult, that I can see maybe getting done.

Maybe. The situation I’ve just described here is like what happened in 2001, which was the last time Dems controlled the House. The LRB drew the state maps, which led to the massive GOP takeover in the 2002 election, and a court drew the Congressional map. And then, once Republicans had control of the House, they went back and redid the Congressional map. That was the original, stated motivation when Tom DeLay pushed for re-redistricting in 2003: The Congressional map should be drawn by the legislators, not by a court. Obviously, they wanted a map that was much more favorable to Republicans, but that was the original reason they gave. It seems to me that this is a very plausible outcome in 2021 as well – the Republicans decide to let a court draw the map, which in all likelihood would be quite deferential to incumbents anyway, then take their chances on retaking the House in 2022 and doing a new Congressional map again. Hey, it worked once before, and now they have a more favorable Supreme Court to back them up.

Honestly, this may be the single most likely scenario – the LRB draws the state maps, a court draws the Congressional map, and everything hinges on the 2022 election. Maybe Dems keep the State House. Maybe we manage to elect a Democratic Governor, who could then veto any new Congressional map. Maybe Republicans win and do their thing. Heck, even in the Great Map Compromise scenario, who’s to say that Republicans wouldn’t tear it all up and start over in the event they retake the House and retain the Governor’s Mansion? I’d put money on that before I placed a bet on a redistricting commission. 2031 is a long, long way away. It’s not at all irrational to prioritize the now over what maybe could possibly happen if everything goes wrong.

DMN profile of Chris Bell

The Dallas Morning News did a series of profiles of Democratic Senate candidates during the Christmas break. They’re worth reading, especially since polls show many of us don’t know these candidates all that well. I’m going to post about each of these, so let’s start with the first one they ran, featuring Chris Bell.

Chris Bell

Chris Bell has never gotten over being drawn out of a congressional seat, a move by Republicans in 2003 that altered the course of his political career and robbed him of a job he loved.

“People forget that things were going great for me in the United States Congress and I was damn good at the job,” Bell told The Dallas Morning News during an interview in his Houston campaign office. “It could not have been going any better.”

It got worse. A GOP-led redistricting plan ushered Bell out of Congress after just one term.

But Bell is running again, this time in the Democratic Senate primary for the nomination against Republican incumbent John Cornyn.

Bell said he’s uniquely qualified to send Cornyn back to Texas and lead the push for progressive legislation in the Senate, including providing affordable health care, curbing gun violence, reversing climate change and creating an economy that benefits all Americans.

“If you look at my background and the fact that not only I have that experience in government and politics but been a practicing trial attorney, they realize that I can hold my own and go toe to toe.”

[…]

After a career as a popular radio news reporter in Amarillo and Houston, Bell left journalism to practice law. He’s always had a love for politics.

He’s been a part of numerous political campaigns, beginning with failed bids for an Amarillo-based congressional seat in 1984, a Houston council race in 1995 and a Houston mayor’s race in 2001.

Bell broke through in 1997, winning a Houston council seat that propelled his career. He was later elected to Congress, where he became one of two freshman on the whip team and helped develop the port security caucus.

But former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s aggressive redistricting plan targeted Bell and other white male Democrats from Texas.

Bell was placed in a district dominated by black voters with Democrat Al Green, who is black. Critics said that after Bell lost his original, 65%-Anglo district, he should have stepped aside in favor of Green.

“It was interesting from the standpoint of getting to see Washington from two different viewpoints, one as an up-and-coming, rising star member of Congress to outgoing member of Congress in a year’s time,” Bell said.

It’s an interesting thought experiment to wonder what might have happened if the DeLay re-redistricting of 2003 had not happened, and Bell had not been drawn out of what was then CD25. He won by almost 12 points in 2002, and I’d say he could have easily held the seat through 2008. The 2010 massacre would probably have taken him out – in this alternate universe, maybe Roy Morales is the first Latinx member of Congress elected from the Houston area – but even if he managed to survive that, I’m sure the 2011 redistricting would have been the end. Much of what was once CD25 is now split among CD07, CD18, and CD09, the district that Bell was drawn into. I cannot imagine anything like the old CD25 making it into this decade.

In this fantasy world I’m spinning, Bell gets some extra Congressional tenure, including two terms in the majority. He doesn’t get his folk hero status for filing the ethics complaint against Tom DeLay that led to his indictment and subsequent resignation from Congress – for all we know, DeLay could still be the incumbent in CD22 in this scenario – nor would he had run for Governor in 2006 or State Senate in 2008. Where he might be now is too big a leap for me to make.

Anyway. We’re in this universe and this timeline, and we have the Chris Bell that we have. I’ve interviewed him a couple of times, most recently in 2015 when he ran for Mayor. He’s a perfectly good candidate, the only one who has run in a statewide general election, and he’s positioned himself on the left end of the spectrum among the main candidates running. Read the piece and see what you think.

Julian Castro ends his Presidential bid

Sorry to see him go.

Julian Castro

Julián Castro has ended his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president, capping a nearly yearlong bid during which he distinguished himself as a progressive crusader but never found the polling or fundraising support to gain wide appeal.

“I’m so proud of the campaign we’ve run together,” Castro said in an almost four-minute video Thursday morning. “We’ve shaped the conversation on so many important issues in this race, stood up for the most vulnerable people and given a voice to those who are often forgotten. But with only a month until the Iowa caucuses and given the circumstances of this campaign, I’ve determined that it simply isn’t our time.”

The video highlighted some of the causes he championed during his campaign — in some cases, largely on his own — that endeared him to the progressive wing of the party but did not translate into the traction needed to thrust him into the top tier of the sprawling Democratic field.

[…]

After years of being regarded as a rising star in Texas politics, Castro threw his hat into the ring early, months before some of his fiercest competitors launched their respective bids. But he consistently raised millions of dollars less than his rivals and polled in the low single digits, failing to qualify for the two most recent debates despite launching a do-or-die fundraising drive before the first of them. He hit his $800,000 target and stayed in the race but still did not make the cut for that debate.

I’m sad to see him depart – Lord knows, I can think of several candidates I’d rather see get out. It’s a lot easier to stay in a race if your goal is something other than winning. Be that as it may, this is far from the end for Castro. He’d be a good VP choice – I thought that in 2016 as well, but that’s the way it goes – and h could certainly wind up in someone’s Cabinet. I for one will be rooting for him to run for Governor in 2022. I don’t think I need to explain that one. Thank you for running, Julian Castro. I look forward to seeing you on the trail again, hopefully soon. The Observer has more.

Beto ends his Presidential campaign

It was fun while it lasted.

Beto O’Rourke

Beto O’Rourke is dropping out of the presidential race.

The former El Paso congressman announced the decision Friday evening, ahead of a major Democratic gathering here in Iowa.

“Though it is difficult to accept, it is clear to me now that this campaign does not have the means to move forward successfully,” O’Rourke wrote on Medium. “My service to the country will not be as a candidate or as the nominee. Acknowledging this now is in the best interests of those in the campaign; it is in the best interests of this party as we seek to unify around a nominee; and it is in the best interests of the country.”

O’Rourke’s decision ends a White House bid that began with much anticipation in mid-March, months after his near-miss loss to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. O’Rourke’s campaign launch coincided with a splashy article on the cover of Vanity Fair, and he reported raising $6.1 million in the first 24 hours of his bid — at the time, the largest announced first-day haul of any 2020 Democratic contender. Soon after, he showed double-digit support in multiple national polls.

But O’Rourke never lived up to the high hopes, and after the initial fanfare of his entrance, he sunk into the low single digits in polls and saw his fundraising come back down to Earth.

He was facing the possibility of missing the cut for the next debate, which is Nov. 20 in Georgia. As of Friday evening, he had gained only two out of four qualifying polls, and the deadline is Nov. 13. A poll of likely Iowa caucus participants released Friday showed he had 1 percent support in the critical early state.

After O’Rourke’s announcement — “a decision we made so recently and so reluctantly,” he said at an event in Des Moines on Friday evening — a person close to him reiterated that his future will not include running for U.S. Senate next year in Texas. Some supporters have been encouraging him to challenge the state’s senior senator, John Cornyn, but he has long said he is not interested. A massive Democratic field has already assembled to take on Cornyn, but so far no candidate has been able to match the excitement O’Rourke created in his 2018 bid.

We all owe Beto a debt of gratitude for his 2018 Senate campaign, which has done more to inject life in the Democratic Party in Texas than anything I can think of. He had his moments during the Presidential race, especially after the mass shooting in El Paso, but that field was too deep and too talented for him to gain traction. He’s not running for Senate next year – you know how I feel about that – but maybe Governor in 2022 is on the menu, especially if Julian Castro is busy in Washington DC at the time. Take some time off and spend it with your family, Beto. Then do everything you can to help Democrats get elected next year. Daily Kos, Slate, Texas Monthly, and the Texas Signal have more.

Abbott and Paxton threaten transgender child

I’m utterly speechless.

Top Texas Republicans have directed the state’s child welfare agency to investigate whether a mother who supports her 7-year-old child’s gender transition is committing “child abuse” — a move that has alarmed an already fearful community of parents of transgender children.

Gov. Greg Abbott declared via tweet Wednesday that two state agencies, the Department of Family and Protective Services and the Texas Attorney General’s Office, are looking into a dispute between divorced North Texas parents who disagree on whether their child should continue the process of transitioning from male to female, a path that could culminate, when the child is years older, in medical interventions.

In a letter Thursday to the state’s child welfare agency, First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer declared that the child — who identifies as a girl, according to testimony from a counselor and pediatrician — is “in immediate and irrevocable danger.”

“We ask that you open an investigation into this matter as soon as possible and act pursuant to your emergency powers to protect the boy in question [from] permanent and potentially irreversible harm by his mother,” Mateer wrote, repeatedly referring to the 7-year-old as a boy. Mateer’s nomination to the federal bench was withdrawn in 2017 after revelations that he had called transgender children part of “Satan’s plan.”

A spokesman for DFPS said the agency’s “review of the allegations is already underway.”

The case’s path to public discourse began with the child’s father, Jeff Younger, whose blog has generated a maelstrom of right-wing outrage, including from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who called the child “a pawn in a left-wing political agenda.” Younger, who also appeared at a rally at the Capitol this spring, does not agree with his ex-wife that his child is transgender. In blog posts, he has claimed his child could face “chemical castration.”

In reality, experts say, the transition process for prepubescent children does not involve medical intervention; instead, it consists of social affirmations like allowing children to wear the clothes they like, employ the names and pronouns they prefer, and paint their nails if they choose. During puberty, a transgender child might, with the consultation of a doctor, begin to take puberty blockers, reversible drugs that can stop puberty and the gender markers that come with it, like a deepening voice, the development of breasts or starting a period. Later on, experts say, transgender young adults might explore the option of surgery.

In a court ruling Thursday that granted the parents joint custody, Dallas Judge Kim Cooks noted that there was never a court order for the child to undergo medical treatment, according to The Dallas Morning News. Indeed, the mother, Anne Georgulas, had requested that Cooks require mutual consent before the child underwent any treatment, the Morning News reported.

So yes, this is Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton and Ted Cruz and the rest getting involved in a marital dispute. Am I the only one who remembers when Republicans claimed to be about getting government out of people’s lives? However true that may have been once, it sure isn’t the case now.

This is nothing short of an authoritarian move by Abbott. The governor appoints the head of the Department of Family and Protective Services. How much faith are you going to have in the outcome of that investigation? Or the investigation by the AG’s office, under Jeff “transgender people are satan’s spawn” Mateer, for that matter? Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned yet that they made the child’s name public, so everyone who agrees with them can force their own opinion on her as well. How lovely.

And all because they disagree with this child’s mother about what the child is allowed to wear, and they had the power to stick their noses in. They won’t stop this child from being transgender, any more than they could stop her from being left-handed or allergic to peanuts. They will cause a lot of damage trying, though. We cannot vote them out of office soon enough.

Julián Castro will not be running for Senate, either

In case you were wondering.

Julián Castro

Julián Castro said Saturday at the Texas Tribune Festival that he would not seek the Democratic nomination to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in 2020 even if he were to drop out of the presidential race.

“No, I’m not going go run for the Senate, that’s never what I intended to do,” Castro said in an interview with MSNBC’s Katy Tur in the penultimate event at the Paramount Theatre, preceding the closing keynote address by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

While Castro is guaranteed a spot on the next Democratic stage in Ohio in October, his chances of qualifying for the November debate are dicey. Castro is at 1.7% in the RealClearPolitics polling average. The raised threshold requires that a candidate earn 3% support in at least four early state or national polls that meet the Democratic National Committee’s methodological requirements — up from 2% for the September and October debates — or at least 5% in two early state polls. The early states are Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

Tur noted that Castro had sent out a note to funders saying if he doesn’t qualify for the November debate, he would drop out of the race.

“If that happens would you consider running against John Cornyn?’ Tur asked Castro.

In explaining why he would not do that, Castro, a former mayor of San Antonio and secretary of Housing and Urban Development, said, “People ask me, `Why are you running for president?’ My experience is actually as an executive. I actually have some of the most relevant experience in running for president. When you’re a president, you’re a chief executive. I was a chef executive of a federal agency with a $48 billion budget. I’m running for what’s relevant to my experience.”

Castro as a Senate candidate has been discussed before, though not nearly as often as “why won’t Beto run for Senate again?” has been discussed. You know how I feel about that, so I’ll just say again that I have always assumed “Castro for Governor 2022” is the backup plan, assuming 1) Castro isn’t in someone’s cabinet, and 2) he actually wants to run for Governor. It is an executive position, he could get an awful lot done, and it would put him in good position to run for President again in 2028, following (God willing) two terms of one of his current opponents in the primary. Not that beating Greg Abbott would be easy, but that would be the time to try. The Current has more.

Is there anything Houston can do about gun violence?

Not much, unfortunately.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday said he wants state lawmakers to give cities and counties more flexibility to address gun violence in response to mass shootings this month that killed 31 people, including 22 in El Paso.

Turner made the remarks at City Hall while calling for a special session of the Texas Legislature on the issue of gun violence.

Current state law mostly forbids local governments from passing measures that restrict gun usage.

Among the items Turner said he would like to pursue are background checks on firearms sales at gun shows, including those that have been held at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

“If I could do it today, I would do it today,” Turner told reporters. “But the state has preempted us.”

[…]

In March, Turner announced the city was establishing a task force to combat local gun violence. Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo has been an outspoken advocate for stricter gun laws, telling Congress earlier this year that gun violence is “one of the greatest public health epidemics facing the nation.”

Turner also allocated $1 million for police overtime pay in April to help officers fight gun violence.

Turner’s comments Wednesday echo those made last week by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who floated the idea of ending the use of county property for gun shows. The county, however, has no power to enact ordinances.

Hidalgo said Wednesday she is working with Turner on a proposal to take “whatever action we can.”

“We are hamstrung by the legislature. They have passed laws specifically preventing us from making policy around gun safety,” Hidalgo said. “We’re really looking under every nook and cranny for what can be done.”

Dru Stevenson, a law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, said the state’s lock on local action largely is absolute.

“The state preempts municipalities from having any type of gun control regulation at all,” Stevenson said.

Even Hidalgo’s idea about ending use of county buildings for gun shows likely would not pass muster, according to Stevenson, due to how strict the state preemptions are.

“They’re more likely to get away with it informally than if they adopt a policy,” he said. “Behind the scenes pressure or incentives might work, but the gun shows are big and lucrative for the conference centers.”

There may be some other things the city could try, but the story doesn’t suggest anything interesting. As with a number of other vexing issues, the real solution lies in another level of government. Really, both state and federal for this one, but there’s probably more direct action that could be taken at the state level, if only by undoing the restrictions that have been imposed. That means the first real chance to get something done will be at the federal level, if all goes well in 2020. We’re not getting anything done in Austin until Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick, at the very least, have been sent packing.

Wendy Davis is in for CD21

For some reason it hadn’t occurred to me that this was likely to happen on Monday. And here we are.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Former Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis is running for Congress.

Early Monday morning, Davis announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination in Central Texas’ 21st District. She is challenging U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, a freshman Republican from Austin.

She made her intentions known in a biographical video, narrated in part with archival footage from her late father, Jerry Russell.

“I’m running for Congress because people’s voices are still being silenced,” she said. “I’m running for our children and grandchildren, so they can live and love and fight for change themselves.”

The potential Davis-Roy matchup is likely to be among the most polarizing races the state has seen in recent years. Davis is a fierce national advocate for abortion rights, while Roy has built his reputation in his first six months in Congress as a conservative firebrand.

Davis lives in Austin but spent much of her adult life in Fort Worth, where she served on the City Council and in the state Senate. In 2013, Davis became a national figure when she filibustered an omnibus anti-abortion bill. Later that fall, she announced her campaign for Texas governor. Despite strong fundraising, she lost to Republican Greg Abbott by over 20 percentage points.

“Even in losing, we helped shape the future,” she said in the video.

[…]

Davis isn’t alone in seeking to challenge Roy. Llano County Democratic Chairwoman Jennie Lou Leeder and educator Bruce Boville are among Democratic candidates who have filed Federal Election Commission finance reports. But there is little doubt that Davis will have the backing of important state and national Democrats. On Tuesday, nearly every member of House Democratic leadership and nine members of the Texas delegation will host a reception in Washington, D.C. for the newly announced candidate.

Inside Elections, a campaign analyst group, currently rates this race “Likely Republican.”

See here for the previous update. I mean, if there’s going to be a big fundraiser for your Congressional campaign on Tuesday, you probably want to make it clear some time before Tuesday that you are, in fact, running for Congress. That fundraiser, and the likely support Davis will get from the Dem establishment is key, because as noted before, no one in CD21 had made any impression yet. (Which, again, is likely because a lot of people were waiting on Wendy, but still.) I saw that Bruce Boville had a finance report, but given that he had raised all of $2K, I didn’t think it was worth mentioning. I expect we’ll see a big number for Davis in the Q3 report.

Yes, I know, standard disclaimers about money not being everything apply here. This campaign, like all of the successful and nearly-successful ones from 2018, will need to lean on a lot of GOTV, and a lot of voter registration, and those things cost money. So yeah, rake it in, Wendy.

One more thing: If your entire reaction is “she got clobbered in 2014 so obviously she can’t win” or some such, that’s a bad take. You may not have noticed, but 2014 was a rotten year for Democrats nationally. At least at this time, that does not appear to be the case for 2020. Individual candidates and campaigns do matter, but so does the national climate. That crushed Dems in 2014, and elevated them in 2018. If 2020 is more like the latter, Davis will have a shot. CD21 is still a Republican district and so she’s still an underdog, but in a good Dem year she will have a chance to win. If 2020 is more like 2014, well, that’s just too gruesome to contemplate. My point is that this is a different year and a different atmosphere, and what happened in 2014 is not destiny. The Chron has more.

Libertarians and Greens sue over the petition process for ballot access

We’ll see about this.

Mark Miller

Ahead of the 2020 election cycle, a group of Texans, along with a number of nonmajor political parties, have sued the secretary of state’s office, alleging that Texas election law discriminates against third-party and independent candidates vying for a spot on the general election ballot.

In a lawsuit filed Thursday in Austin, plaintiffs argued that current state law would give nonmajor political parties in 2020 just 75 days to obtain over 80,000 valid signatures to gain ballot access — and that the cost of doing so could cost more than $600,000.

Currently, third parties like the Green Party and the Libertarian Party can secure a spot on the general election ballot by either having at least one candidate who wins more than 5% of the vote in a statewide race during the previous election cycle, or by collecting a certain number of required signatures. That 5% threshold will soon be lowered to 2% of the vote in one of the past five general elections once a measure that passed the Texas Legislature this year takes effect Sept. 1.

Candidates unaffiliated with a political party, meanwhile, are allowed access to the general election ballot as long as they file the required paperwork and gather a certain number of signatures, which depends on which office they’re seeking.

For both third-party and independent candidates, signatures must come from registered voters who did not vote in either the Republican or Democratic primaries or participate in another party’s convention that year.

“Collecting signatures by hand is inherently time-consuming, labor-intensive and expensive,” Mark Miller, a plaintiff in the case and a two-time Libertarian candidate for Texas Railroad Commission, said in a news release. “And collecting 80,000-plus valid signatures in the limited time allowed under Texas law is all but impossible without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire paid petition circulators.”

In the lawsuit, plaintiffs suggested that Texas could modernize its signature petition procedure to help alleviate the burden they say has been placed on them. Plaintiffs pointed to Arizona, which they said has a secretary of state who recently implemented an online platform to allow voters to sign nomination petitions electronically — instead of in person and on paper.

Let me start by saying that if the minor parties win the right to collect electronic petition signatures so their candidates can get on the ballot in a state where electronic voter registration is illegal, that will be infuriating. The latter is by far the bigger affront to democracy.

Before I get to the main part of my analysis, let me add some more details about this from the Statesman.

State law offers three paths for candidates to land on the general election ballot:

Political parties that received at least 20 percent of the vote in the previous election for governor nominate their candidates for state and county office and the U.S. Congress via primary elections, with the winners advancing to the general election. “Since at least 1900, only the Democratic Party and Republican Party have qualified,” the lawsuit said.

Major-party candidates pay filing fees ranging from $75 to $5,000 or by submitting petitions with 5,000 signatures for statewide office. The law does not set a time limit on when they can begin collecting those signatures, the lawsuit said. Minor parties must nominate general-election candidates at a convention where participants equal at least 1% of the number of Texans who voted for governor in the prior election, or 83,717 participants in 2020. No minor party has met the 1% requirement in at least 50 years, the lawsuit said, but Texas law allows candidates to collect voter signatures within a 75-day window to make up the difference.

The tight deadline and limits on who may sign the petitions – registered voters cannot sign if they voted in a recent primary, attended another party’s convention or signed another party’s nominating petition for the same election – put minor-party candidates at a significant disadvantage, the lawsuit said.

Independent candidates are allowed on the general election ballot if they collect petition signatures equal to 1% of the voters in the previous gubernatorial election. Petitions cannot be circulated until after the major parties hold a primary or primary runoff election, meaning candidates could have 114 days, or as little as 30 days, to collect signatures, the lawsuit said. “This uncertainty alone imposes a significant burden that chills potential candidacies,” the lawsuit said.

Having to collect about 80,000 valid signatures by hand can cost $600,000, largely to hire people to circulate petitions, the lawsuit said. The result is an election scheme that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for candidates who are not wealthy to participate in the political arena, said Oliver Hall, a lawyer with the nonprofit Center for Competitive Democracy, which worked on the lawsuit without charge along with the Shearman & Sterling law firm, which has an office in Austin. “We think the federal courts will recognize that Supreme Court precedent prohibits Texas from limiting participation in its electoral process to those with financial means,” Hall said.

So the first thing to realize is that this cycle is an especially challenging one for parties or candidates who need to go the petition route to get on the ballot. That includes the Libertarians, whose best performance in 2018 was 3.42% in the Comptroller’s race. The Libertarians and to a lesser extent the Greens have benefited in the past from the Democrats not competing in all of the statewide judicial races, leaving at least one slot with a Republican running against an L and a G, with the two of them combining for 20% or so of the vote; there were two such races in 2014. In 2018 Dems had candidates in all of the judicial races, and that left the Libertarians (the Greens were not on the ballot because none of their candidates got to five percent in 2016) out in the cold. The other thing about 2018, you might recall, is that it shattered records for off-year turnout, which is why that “one percent of the Governor’s race” (*) requirement is as high as it is. Had the Ls and Gs needed petition signatures for 2016, they’d have only needed about 47,000 of them based on gubernatorial turnout from 2014. In addition, primary turnout, especially on the Dem side, is going to be through the roof, meaning that the pool of eligible petition-signers will be that much smaller. However you feel about the plight of the minor parties and would-be independents, this is a bad year to have to collect petition signatures.

The other fact to reckon with is that this isn’t the first time a federal lawsuit (which this one is, according to the Statesman) has been filed over this requirement. Back in 2004, after Ralph Nader tried and failed to get enough signatures to be on the ballot as an independent Presidential candidate, he sued and ultimately lost; his subsequent appeal was rejected. Federal judge Lee Yeakel ruled at the time that Texas’ ballot access laws did not create an unconstitutional burden. I’m not exactly sure what is different this time, other than the number of plaintiffs, but who knows. This is the main question, at least as far as I’m concerned, that will need to be addressed. I’ll be keeping an eye on it.

For what it’s worth, while I have no warmth for the third parties, I’d be all right with a petition process that gave them more time, and even that allowed them to solicit any voter, not just non-primary voters. If and when we get electronic voter registration, I’d concede on the electronic petition gathering item. Beyond that, I don’t see much of a problem. We’ll see what the judge says.

(*) There were 8,343,443 votes cast in the 2018 Governor’s race, one percent of which is 83,434. I have no idea where that 83,717 figure comes from, unless it’s some kind of weird typo.

The Straus PAC

We’ll see what this does.

Rep. Joe Straus

Former Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican, announced Wednesday he was launching a new political action committee that he said will aim to help him continue to carry out “a thoughtful, responsible approach to governing.”

The group, Texas Forever Forward, will be chaired by Straus, who said in a news release he will contribute $2.5 million from his old campaign account to the new initiative. Former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson will serve as treasurer of the group.

“We are launching this effort because I believe Texas needs leaders who are forward-looking and dedicated to bringing creative, problem-solving ideas to the new challenges our state faces as our population rapidly grows,” Straus said in a statement. “It’s time to unite Texas in civic participation and ensure our next decades are the very best in our long, proud journey.”

[…]

Wednesday’s announcement keeps Straus’ name in the political arena as he leaves the door open to running for higher office in 2022, a person familiar with the former speaker’s thinking told The Texas Tribune.

Texas Forever Forward indicated it will support candidates and causes that align with Straus and his leadership style. A news release states that the group believes that “Texas should embrace diversity and promote inclusive, non-discriminatory policies and laws,” and that “public education is our greatest economic development tool, and it’s critical to make meaningful, sustainable investments in Texas students.”

It’s unclear whether the group plans to wade into GOP primary races — which have been hotly contested in past elections between the centrist and more right-leaning factions of the party — and whether it will support only Republican candidates running for office in 2020. Straus said in an email to supporters Wednesday that he plans to communicate updates on the political action committee as the election cycle heats up.

I think Straus can either support a bunch of candidates with his PAC, or he can gear up to run statewide in 2022. I don’t see a path for him to do both. If he supports any Democrats, even safe-seat Dems that were on his leadership team, he’ll be radioactive in a GOP primary. Bear in mind, he will probably have to oust an incumbent in a GOP primary if he wants a statewide seat, and even if there’s an open seat that interests him the competition will be fierce. If instead he spends a lot of money trying to beat Democrats he’ll lose all of the bipartisan sheen he has, and there will still be Republicans who will hate him as a RINO. The latter path is more viable if he wants to run statewide, but may not be such an asset if current voting trends hold. My guess is that he uses his PAC as an anti-Empower Texans weapon and stays retired from running for office. But the siren song of electoral politics is very alluring, so who knows. Let’s see what he does this cycle first.

Ten Best and Ten Worst 2019

Here’s that famous biennial list from Texas Monthly.

The Best

  • House Speaker Dennis Bonnen
  • Representative Joe Moody
  • Representative James White
  • Representative Donna Howard
  • Representative Dade Phelan
  • Representative Victoria Neave
  • Senator Kirk Watson
  • Representative Tom Oliverson

The Worst

  • Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick
  • Representative Tom Craddick
  • Senator Bryan Hughes
  • Representative Poncho Nevárez
  • Senator Angela Paxton
  • Representative Jeff Leach
  • Senator John Whitmire
  • Senator Brandon Creighton

Special Awards

  • Most Improved: Governor Greg Abbott
  • Cockroach: Representative Jonathan Stickland
  • Freshman of the Year: Representative Julie Johnson
  • Bull of the Brazos: Senator Paul Bettencourt
  • Furniture

Click over to read the stories. Many of these had me nodding my head, others had me saying “huh, I hadn’t realized that”. None of them stood out as egregiously wrong based on the reasons cited, which has not always been the case. Anyway, read and enjoy, and as always consult with Harold Cook for the proper way to respond.

A starter agenda for when we have a Democratic state government

I’ve been pondering the recent legislative session, which as we have discussed wasn’t great but also wasn’t nearly as bad as some other recent sessions have been. The qualification for all this is that the key defining factor for our legislative sessions is defense. How well did we do preventing bad bills from becoming law? Oh, there are occasional good bills, on things like criminal justice reform and medical marijuana and the injection of money into public education this session, which should be good until the lack of a funding mechanism becomes an issue. But actually moving the ball forward, on a whole host of items, is a non-starter.

That’s not a surprise, with Republicans in control of all aspects of state government. But Dems picked up 12 seats in the House and two in the Senate, and came close in several statewide races in 2018. There’s a decent chance that Dems can win the House in 2020, and I have to believe we’ll have a stronger candidate for Governor in 2022. The Senate remains a challenge, but after the 2021 redistricting happens, who knows what the landscape may look like. Dems need to aim for the House in 2020, and have a goal of winning statewide in 2022. It won’t be easy, and the national landscape is a huge variable, but we know we’re moving in the right direction, and if not now then when?

And if these are our goals, and we believe we have a reasonable chance at achieving them, then we need to talk about what we want to accomplish with them. It’s a cliche that our legislature is designed to kill bills and not to pass them, but having a unified, overarching agenda – which, let’s not forget, can get a boost by being declared “emergency items” by the Governor – can help overcome that.

So towards that end, I hereby propose a starting point for such an agenda. Moving the ball forward is the ultimate aim, but I believe we have to first move the ball back to where it was before Republicans assumed full control of the government in 2003 in order to really do that. That’s the idea behind this list, which I want to stress is a starting point and very much open to discussion. There are a lot of things a Democratic government will need to do, from health care to voting rights to equality to the environment to climate change and so much more, but we can’t overlook fixing the bad things first.

My list, therefore, covers bills passed since 2003 when Republicans took over. I am skipping over constitutional amendments like the 2003 tort “reform” item, because they will require a supermajority to pass, which we surely will not have. I’m aiming for simplicity, in that these are easy to understand and rally around, and for impact. So without further ado, here are my ideas:

1. Repeal voter ID.
2. Repeal “sanctuary cities”.
3. Repeal anti-Planned Parenthood legislation, from prohibitions on PP receiving Medicaid to this session’s ban on cities partnering with PP on anything, and restore the previously used Women’s Health Program.

Like I said, simple and straightforward, with a lot of impact. The first two are obvious and should have unanimous Democratic support. The third is more of a challenge because even with a Democratic majority in the Senate, we won’t necessarily have a pro-choice majority. Eddie Lucio, and to a somewhat lesser degree Judith Zaffirini, are both opponents of reproductive rights, though Zaffirini is more nuanced than Lucio and ought to be gettable on this kind of bill via an appeal to health care access.

As I said, this is a starting point. There are things I have deliberately left off this list, though I am not by any means discounting or overlooking them. The “Save Chick-fil-A” bill from this session, whose real life effect is not yet known, needs to go but might be better handled as part of a statewide non-discrimination law. (Also, too, there’s the Eddie Lucio problem in the Senate.) Campus carry and open carry are terrible laws, but might be better handled via comprehensive gun control legislation. Tuition deregulation, a big cause of skyrocketing college costs at public universities, which was passed in 2003 as one of many cut-the-budget effort over the years, will be a more complex issue that may require time to study before a consensus solution can be brought forward. All these things and more need to be on the agenda, but some things are more involved than others.

Again, this is a starting point. I make no claim that this is a be-all or end-all. Hell, I make no claim that I’m not forgetting anything equally simple and substantive. I welcome all constructive feedback. Ultimately, what I want out of this is for Dems to recognize the need to decide what our priorities are before we get handed the power to affect them, and to make it part of the case we will be making to the voters to give us that power. I believe having some uniformity to our message will help us. Now it’s up to us to figure out what that message needs to be.

Chris Bell looking at a Senate run

We haven’t had one of these stories in a couple of weeks.

Chris Bell

Chris Bell, the former Democratic congressman and gubernatorial nominee from Houston, is mulling a bid for U.S. Senate in 2020 against U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Bell told the Tribune on Monday that he is taking a “serious look” at the race in the wake of the recent decision by U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, to pass on a bid against Cornyn. Bell said he is in the “very early” stage of deliberations but believes he would need to make a decision by this summer to be able to run a viable campaign.

There are already several Democratic candidates, including former U.S. House contender MJ Hegar, and a couple of other prominent names are still weighing whether to run. Bell expressed confidence that he could break through.

“I certainly think it’s a field I could compete in,” Bell said, touting his long record helping build up the party in Texas. “Many of us believe this is the year the pendulum finally swings.”

[…]

Bell, who now has his own law firm in Houston, said he thought he was done with running for office but like many Democrats, he felt compelled to “stay involved or get involved” after President Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Bell said he had hoped Beto O’Rourke, the former El Paso Congressman who made an unsuccessful but high-profile bid for U.S. Senate last year, would run for the U.S. Senate again in 2020. After both O’Rourke and Castro opted against challenging Cornyn, Bell began considering what he could bring to the race.

“I think a big part of my message would be a lot of people are looking to Texas now for guidance, and we’re in a perfect position to lead,” Bell said, pointing to issues such as immigration reform and climate change. He also echoed other Democrats in claiming Cornyn has been afraid to stand up for Texas, shrinking behind Trump as well as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

I like Chris Bell. He was a good member of Congress, whose career there was cut short by the DeLay re-redistricting of 2003. He was a better candidate for Governor in 2006 than he’s ever gotten credit for, and if the trial lawyers had gotten over their obsession with Carole Keeton Strayhorn and figured out they needed to help push Democratic voters to support the Democratic candidate in that year’s multi-candidate pileup for Governor, he might have won. (VaLinda Hathcox, the Democratic candidate for Land Commissioner in 2006, got more votes in her race than Rick Perry did. Look it up.) He ran a progressive campaign for Mayor in 2015. (*)

All that said, I’m hard pressed to think of anyone who’d be excited by a Chris Bell candidacy. Going by the criteria I suggested for potential John Cornyn opponents, he doesn’t really meet any of them. He’s held office and run statewide before, and he’ll have some measure of support in Houston. That gives him a shot in a primary, but it would also probably spur Emily’s List to quit waiting to see if Amanda Edwards jumps in and start getting behind MJ Hegar now. It’s fine by me if Chris Bell want to run for Senate. As stated before, I’d prefer a primary with more than one serious candidate in it, if only to ensure that everyone starts engaging voters now. Chris Bell is welcome to run, and may the best candidate win. But that’s about as enthusiastic as I’m gonna get about it.

(*) – He then threw that all away to endorse Bill King in the runoff. Democratic primary voters will remember that. The Chron has more.

Cornyn still thinks he may face Beto

He could be right, but I would not expect it.

Big John Cornyn

Beto O’Rourke has ruled out another run for the Senate, and as he edges closer to a bid for president, Texas Democrats are still searching for someone to challenge Sen. John Cornyn.

But Cornyn isn’t convinced O’Rourke has given up his Senate aspirations.

On Tuesday, he sent donors an email blast warning of “Beto’s Texas,” hinting that the El Paso Democrat could yet come after him, and asking for help filling a new “Stop Beto Fund.”

“I don’t think it’s out of the realm of the possibility that that could happen,” Cornyn said Wednesday when asked about his fundraising message. “The filing deadline is December the 9th, I believe. So my expectation is that perhaps Beto, perhaps Julian Castro or others who have indicated that they’re running for president — if they’re not getting a lot of traction then obviously it’s very easy to pivot into the Senate race.”

Cornyn is correct that no matter what Beto (or Julian, for that matter) says now, there’s a lot of time between now and December 9, and a lot of people running for President. Some number of them may very well not make it to the starting line, and if so they could easily jump into another race like this. Bill White was running for Senate, in anticipation of Kay Bailey Hutchison stepping down to run for Governor, for quite some time in 2009 before he finally figured out that KBH was staying put. Only then did he shift gears to run for Governor. It could happen. I don’t think it will because I don’t think anyone who has the capability of raising money and building a team is going to drop out before the first votes are cast, and that won’t happen till after the filing deadline. But I could be wrong. Cornyn is not wrong to tout the possibility – I figure Beto is at least as big a boogeyman among Republican campaign donors as Nancy Pelosi. May as well ride that horse till it drops.

Other interesting bits:

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate, had urged O’Rourke to run against Cornyn.

After O’Rourke decided against it, Schumer met with Hegar, who lost to Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, by about 8,000 votes out of 281,000.

Nearly 3 million people have viewed a 3-minute campaign video that Hegar, a decorated Air Force helicopter pilot, used in her effort to unseat Carter.

But Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — the party’s House campaign arm — is urging Hegar to run against Carter, The Hill reported Wednesday.

Bustos also said that Gina Ortiz Jones, an Iraq War veteran, will take a second shot at Rep. Will Hurd, R-San Antonio.

“I would say over the next, you know, one, two, three cycles, that that state’s going to look very different,” Bustos said.

Seems clear that what the national Dems want is Beto for Senate, and basically all of the 2018 Congressional candidates – CD24 not included – back for another go at it. Second choice is Joaquin for Senate and the rest as above. We need to know what Beto is doing before we can know what Joaquin is doing, and the rest follows from that. That’s another reason why I think it’s either/or for Beto – once he’s all in for President (or for not running at all), he will no longer have a clear pathway to the nomination for Senate. Someone else will be in that lane, and the surest way to evaporate one’s good will among the party faithful is to be a Beto-come-lately into a race where a perfectly fine candidate that some number of people will already be fiercely loyal to already exists. As someone once said, it’s now or never.

What about Wendy?

If not Beto and not Joaquin

Wendy Davis

Wendy Davis of Texas said Tuesday she is considering a U.S. Senate run in 2020 but is waiting to see whether another high-profile Democrat, Rep. Joaquin Castro, goes through with challenging Republican incumbent John Cornyn.

Davis hasn’t run for office since badly losing the governor’s race in 2014 following her star-making filibuster of an anti-abortion bill in the Texas Capitol, catapulting her into the national spotlight and making her a prominent voice for women’s rights.

She told The Associated Press she has urged Castro to run, calling him “uniquely poised” in Texas to give Democrats a chance at winning their first statewide office in 25 years. Castro said last week he was giving “serious” consideration to a Senate campaign but set no timetable for a decision.

Davis said she wants him to decide soon so that someone else — including her — could step up if he sits out. She said she also discussed a Senate run with MJ Hegar, an Air Force veteran who last year lost a close congressional challenge near Austin.

“I’m proud of the way that all of us are working together to decide how can we best beat John Cornyn. What’s the best approach? Who has the strongest opportunity?” Davis said. “As we answer that question, we are going to circle behind that person and do all we can to support them — whether it’s me, whether it’s MJ, whether it’s Joaquin, whether it’s someone else. You are going to see us come together cohesively.”

See here and here for the background. The pro-Davis side is easy to see: She’s run statewide before, she has some name recognition, she has demonstrated fundraising ability, this is a good time for female candidates, and in the Gorsuch/Kavanaugh era being strongly pro-choice is more of an asset than it was four years ago. The downside is just as obvious, and it all basically boils down to the disaster that was 2014. To be fair, that was a national disaster for Dems, and at the very least the turnout issue should be muted somewhat in a Presidential year, especially with Trump on the ballot. She’d still need to convince people that she’s learned from that awful experience and would run a different and better campaign this time around. I kind of think she’s positioning herself as a fallback plan, which is fine. I too would prefer Castro or Hegar, but I’ve always been a Wendy Davis fan and I’m happy to see that she’s still in the game.

One more thing:

If she doesn’t go for Senate, Davis said it was unlikely she’ll run for Congress this cycle, pointing to no obvious seats around Austin for now.

Well, Mike Siegel is running in CD10. I don’t know if Joseph Kopser is up for another shot at CD21, but I’m sure the DCCC has been in touch with him. If MJ Hegar winds up running for Senate, that would open up CD31, though as an Austin resident Davis would be quickly painted as a carpetbagger. Maybe she could talk to Julie Oliver about what it was like to run in CD25. That’s a longer shot than these other three, but I bet Davis could raise some money and put a scare into Roger Williams. Just a thought.

MJ Hegar considers a Senate run

Now we’re getting somewhere.

MJ Hegar

Military veteran MJ Hegar, a former U.S. House candidate, is seriously considering a run for the Democratic nomination to take on U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in 2020.

Hegar, who served in the Air Force in Afghanistan, ran unsuccessfully against U.S. Rep. John Carter of Round Rock last year for his Central Texas congressional seat.

“I’m not closing the door on anything,” she told The Texas Tribune on Tuesday.

“I’m considering my options and weighing what’s best for my family and how to best serve my community,” she added. “I’m aware that I have assets. … I’d like to put those assets to use for my community.”

[…]

Whom the Democrats nominate to take on Cornyn is one of the central questions in this early stage of the 2020 election cycle. That eventual nominee could affect down-ballot races at all levels across the state. Many Texas Democratic insiders hope that former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who is considering a run for president, or former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, who is already in the presidential fray, will instead run for U.S. Senate.

For her part, Hegar said one thing that might factor into her decision is whether former Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis jumps in the Senate primary. Davis told the Tribune on Tuesday she has not “ruled anything out.”

Davis, who ran an unsuccessful Texas gubernatorial bid against Greg Abbott in 2014, has spent much of her time since then helping Texas candidates like Hegar.

“Wendy is someone I respect a lot and I support a lot,” Hegar said. “And if she were to decide to run, I would be very hard to convince to enter a primary against her.”

As you know, Hegar is high on my list of non-Beto options versus Cornyn. Frankly, I think the fact that she’s publicly talking about it is a sign that for Beto it’s either run for President or not run for anything. (In re: Julian Castro, given that candidate filing season ends in mid-December here, he’d have to abandon his Presidential campaign before ever facing a single voter, which seems unlikely to me. Maybe Governor in 2022 if he’s not in office or a Cabinet position after 2020, but I cannot see him running for Senate this cycle.) I would be very happy with an MJ Hegar candidacy.

As for Wendy Davis, this is the first time I’ve seen her name attached to a potential 2020 campaign. I love Wendy Davis, but she’ll have a harder time getting the kind of attention she got in her first statewide run, and when she does she’ll get asked a lot about why her 2014 candidacy flopped. Which is only fair – Texas Dems will surely want to know what she learned from that experience, and why she thinks Davis-Cornyn 2020 would be different than Davis-Abbott 2014. To be sure, I think being a female candidate now is much more of an advantage than it was in 2014, and with a solid anti-Roe majority on SCOTUS I think the abortion issue will play a lot better for her. Those white suburban women who avoided her in droves in 2014 are a lot more amenable to Democrats now, after all. I will just ask that if Wendy Davis throws her hat into the ring for Senate in 2020, it means that MJ Hegar will be back to try again against John Carter.