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Dispatches from Dallas, June 9 edition

This is a weekly feature produced by my friend Ginger. Let us know what you think.

This week in news from DFW, we have a grab bag. Who’s in and out in the Democratic primary for CD-32; Collin County is split on voting machines and Ken Paxton’s impeachment; the Joppa asphalt plant is finally closing; HEB expands into Dallas, specifically South Dallas; various shenanigans in Fort Worth around race and LGBTQ diversity; your regular dose of Clarence Thomas and Harlan Crow; and last but not least, barbecue feuding and Dallas’ diversity of donuts.

Dispatches from Dallas, June 2 edition

This is a weekly feature produced by my friend Ginger. Let us know what you think.

In DFW-area news this week, we’ll be talking about Ken Paxton, who’s local to Collin County, updates on the Dallas ransomware problem, trouble in the Dallas County juvenile department, and the outlet mall in Allen reopens. Plus, two baby giraffes!

We’ll start with a nice backgrounder from our local NPR station about Paxton’s history, his embrace of the Tea Party, and his shady financial dealings, much of which will be old news to long-time readers of this blog. Also worth a review is this Texas Observer piece from 2018 that explains how Paxton had managed to avoid trial until then. The short version is that Paxton is tight with the reactionary Republican cabal that runs Collin County, including DA Greg Willis (whom you may remember for recently settling a sexual harassment lawsuit). And as you also probably know, Paxton’s wife Angela is a state senator, having been elected for a second term to her husband’s old seat, and will be a juror in her husband’s trial unless she recuses herself.

Meanwhile, in other DFW connections to this case, here’s a piece about Rep. Charlie Geren of Fort Worth, who was a member of the House General Investigating Committee that brought the charges. Geren will also serve as an impeachment manager in the Senate, as part of a committee of twelve representatives including Jeff Leach of Plano and Morgan Meyer of University Park (my own representative). As noted in the Fort Worth Report article, Paxton threatened the members of the committee. Given that, as noted in the Observer article I linked above, Paxton’s friends at Empower Texas primaried out the judge who appointed the special prosecutors in his original case, this may not be an entirely idle threat. The backlash against Paxton’s impeachment has already started: the Collin County GOP already claims that Paxton wasn’t impeached properly(Archive link). And of course the former President had a lot to say about the impeachment as well. Expect more of this kind of talk between now and the trial.

The DMN has an analysis of how the Paxton case points to divisions inside the Republican party in Texas in 2024 (Archive link) and as the Washington Post link about TFG demonstrates, removing Paxton has national implications. It hasn’t been a major point in the impeachment discussion, but Paxton is a big defender of the Big Lie (relevant older stories at Mother Jones & the Texas Tribune) and in case you want to hear about his work making it harder to vote in Texas from the man himself, here’s a minute of Paxton talking to Steve Bannon (youtube) where he says if he hadn’t been able to block mail-in ballots, Trump would have lost Texas in 2020. Personally, I don’t believe that, but it’s key to understanding why TFG is pro-Paxton.

As an aside, related to all this discussion of voting and suppression is HB 1243, which makes illegal voting a felony again and is on Greg Abbott’s desk for signature.

From Dallas, which is the last surviving redoubt of Business Republicans of any size and is also in spitting distance of the Collin County crew, it’s easy to see how the impeachment and trial will only exacerbate the divisions between the Business/Country Club folks and the True Believers/Trumpists. Paxton has looked unstoppable for years and everyone who’s taken a shot at him has missed. Something that happened in this session (possibly 3.3 million somethings) made the Business Republicans decide it was finally worth it to take Paxton on; part of that had to be signals that statewide leadership was willing to let Paxton go.

Or maybe it’s all some twelve-dimensional chess move by Dan Patrick to take down Greg Abbott by getting him to back impeachment while Patrick saves Paxton in the Senate. No matter what it is, I’m going to be sitting back with popcorn watching angry Republicans going at each other over Ken Paxton all summer.

In other news:

Dispatches from Dallas, May 26 edition

This is a weekly feature produced by my friend Ginger. Let us know what you think.

This week, in DFW-area news, another smorgasbord, including the ongoing effects of the ransomware attacks, runoff elections, the aftermath of the Allen mall shooting, local fallout from Lege decisions, Wyatt HS in FWISD has a racism problem, Frisco ISD has civil rights problems, Harlan Crow keeps talking, an I-345 update, some great museum exhibits in the area this summer, and Tina Turner’s (RIP) connection to Dallas.

Dispatches from Dallas, May 19 edition

This is a weekly feature produced by my friend Ginger. Let us know what you think.

This week in DFW-area news, we have a smorgasbord: follow-up on the Allen mall shooting, election cleanup, more on Thomas and Crow, MUD shenanigans, and computer snafus and more. Plus, Dallas gets lots of good sports news, art, music, and HEB BBQ.

The first few items in this roundup are about mass shooting/gun violence and intimate partner violence and murder. Please read and click through with care.

More on the Allen mall shooting: responses from local media are mostly about whether or not the shooting was a hate crime and what the political implications were. Typical of the former is Machismo, misogyny, misinformation: Why some Hispanic people become white supremacists (Archive link with a slightly different headline archived a few days ago) and Was the Allen Mass Shooting a Hate Crime? Authorities Still Haven’t Said. The question of whether it’s a hate crime is tied to several acknowledged anti-Asian hate crimes, including shootings in Dallas’s Koreatown, in the last few years.

Typical of the latter is Can politicians opposing gun reforms rely on Collin County voters after a mass shooting? The most important thing about this shooting is not whether or not Democrats can make hay out of it, but at the same time, if we want more than thoughts and prayers issued after this shooting the way we got after Uvalde and El Paso and … (here’s a timeline of the last 14 years in mass shootings here in Texas), we are going to have to vote the bastards out. And in Texas, they’re Republicans.

One last story that I was personally pretty bothered by is the Allen PD’s callout of one first-person account of the shooting as false. The story was gruesome and you hate to think that someone would make those details up for social media clout. You also hate to think that the cops would harass someone who helped at the scene of a mass shooting. Yet, here we are.

In other news:

Dispatches from Dallas, May 12 edition

This is a weekly feature produced by my friend Ginger. Let us know what you think.

This week in DFW-area news, two big stories: the mass shooting in Allen and local election results. Plus, updates on the Dallas ransomware situation, Tarrant County jail troubles go to the feds, Clarence Thomas and Harlan Crow, robotaxis, a great exhibit at an area museum, and mayo beer.

First, local elections: The city of Dallas had all fourteen seats and the mayor’s office on the ballot. All the incumbents (the mayor and 12 council members) won (Archive link), with only one of the open seats proceeding to a runoff. In Fort Worth, per Fort Worth Report, Mayor Parker and most of the council also cruised to re-election and there’s going to be a runoff in D11, the new Hispanic-opportunity district. Arlington kept its mayor and the majority of its council and approved bonds for streets and parks. Denton recalled one council member (archive link), presumably over ignoring the voters on marijuana decriminalization. Local blogger Mark Steger sums up the Richardson elections; Richardson also kept most incumbents and passed a bond issue for additional funds to replace their city hall, which was due for refurbishment before it burned down.

In school board elections, the DMN summarizes results in Collin and Dallas counties (Archive link), which mostly favored incumbents, which was good news after last year’s beatdown by reactionary Patriot Mobile candidates and the like. Frankin Strong has a good summary of statewide news including where anti-reactionary forces failed in North Texas: Keller ISD and Grapevine-Colleyville ISD.

I’m not a fan of Dallas mayor Eric Johnson, but he was the only choice on the ballot. My council member (D10) was term-limited out and I live in a part of Dallas that’s a stronghold of the business Republican, so it’s unsurprising that even the candidate I voted for was a little conservative for my taste. He lost, though, and the somewhat more conservative but at least not utterly reactionary Kathy Stewart will be my council member. Meanwhile in RISD elections, the incumbent in at-large place 6 survived a reactionary challenger, which I consider enough of a victory to make up for both D10 and the mayor.

But at least I voted! A lot of people don’t, and the complaints are legion (Dallas Observer; DMN; Fort Worth Report). Looks like the numbers in the cities are about 10% of registered voters, which as that Dallas Observer story demonstrates, means hundreds of votes are deciding council seat elections. We could solve part of this problem by moving municipal elections to November, when more people vote. But since the people who could move elections keep getting re-elected in May, that’s not likely to happen.

The second big story this week is the mass shooting at the outlet mall in Allen. I assume anyone interested enough to follow Charles’ blog is aware of the outlines of the story, but here’s the DMN update on the story from the 10th (Archive link). Unsurprisingly the killer had a history of “mental illness” and his guns were legally acquired. He was wearing a patch signifying right-wing extremist views and his social media was full of Hitler love and related opinions. And half the victims were of Asian descent (Archive link). Everybody and their dog is upset with Texas Republicans who won’t do anything about guns, but of course, as Charles noted yesterday, we can’t even get the Lege to pass a bill to keep from selling assault weapons to young folks who can’t drink legally in the wake of a mass murder.

Meanwhile, since the mass shooting in Allen, we also saw an apparent attack on folks outside a migrant shelter in Brownsville that killed eight people. And in North Texas we had a shooting on a DART train that killed one and injured two (Archive link). That was just Sunday. Plus, of course, the inevitable copycat threats.

Andrea Grimes has the best take on the whole thing: “If I die by gun violence, don’t pray for me. Politicize me.”

In other news:

  • Charles has covered recent news on the ransomware attack on the City of Dallas. Today the city says it may take months to clean all city computers (Archive link). I’m glad our library is fine-free and I have a stack of books to work through before the IT folks get to it.
  • Here’s a little DMN coverage of the upcoming Senate race between hometown boy Colin Allred and Ted Cruz (Archive link). Most of this is conventional wisdom about how much it sucks to be a Democrat in Texas but I think the DMN’s political reporter may be on to something about the difference between Allred and Beto. I appreciate Beto’s positive campaigning, but he didn’t hit Cruz hard enough. Allred has come out of the gate saying what we all know is true: Cruz is awful and he’s in it for himself. Allred has a fine line to walk being positive vs bringing Cruz’s many chickens home to roost; his opening video did a great job of emphasizing both points. While Allred isn’t my congressional rep (I wish) his local profile suggests he has a good chance of threading that needle.
  • Again as Charles noted, notorious sex pest Bryan Slaton was expelled from the Lege Tuesday. I hope we’ve seen the last of him, but I doubt it. I’ll be keeping an eye out for a new election in Slaton’s district, not to mention seeing who scoops him up as a lobbyist. My condolences to his former constituents, except the ones who voted for him.
  • Speaking of hater Republicans, the Tarrant County Judge is going after a bar that hosted an all-ages drag show. He’s asked the Comptroller to rule whether Tulips, a venue I haven’t been to yet but one that’s hosted a number of concerts I’m interested in, is operating as an unlicensed sexually-oriented business. This is the same county judge who ran off a nationally-acclaimed election administrator because he’s an election denier, so take his suggestions with a mountain of salt.
  • In economic news, the Dallas Fed says Texas is losing its cheap housing advantage. Having bought two houses and sold one in the state in the last fifteen years, I’m not surprised. The price of our (free standing) new construction condo in Austin went up by half in the eight years we owned it and its current estimated value is about another half again of what we sold it for; and our house in Dallas has gone up about half in estimated value in the not-quite five years since we bought it. Near southeast Austin was hot because of the Oracle facility but I can’t tell you why northeast Dallas is this hot.
  • I’ve been watching this story for a while but it’s now coming to a head: Fort Worth activists work with Texas A&M to seek federal investigation of Tarrant County Jail. In particular this request was driven by the county’s handling of the case of Robert Miller, where the county supposedly hired a third-party expert to review the autopsy after he died in jail and the Star-Telegram questioned the results. No autopsy report was sent to the expert and nothing happened. Unsurprisingly, the Sheriff’s office did not respond to information requests for the linked story. Read the whole thing; it’s pretty grim. I’ll continue to keep an eye on this case and hope for some forward motion from the feds.
  • Robotaxis are coming: GM’s Cruise to Expand Robotaxi Service to Dallas and Houston (Archive link). “Cruise initially will offer rides to employees and have a safety driver, then open it to the public once the service is established. When the cars are truly driverless, Cruise will charge fares, a spokeswoman said.” More for somebody else.
  • You knew there was going to be a Clarence Thomas & Harlan Crow update. So here’s the ProPublica story about Harlan Crow paying for Thomas’ great-nephew, whom Thomas raised, at expensive private schools and laying out about $100,000. Crow, meanwhile, has told the Senate panel looking into the apparent corruption involved in his gifts to Thomas to to kiss off (Archive link). For commentary on all this, I recommend Dahlia Lithwick and Chris Geidner. Also, in case you can’t get enough of Clarence and Ginni Thomas, PBS has a Frontline documentary out on them.
  • In cultural news: Nearly 100 works make for a once-in-a-generation show of Mayan art at the Kimbell. The Kimbell is the best museum in the DFW metroplex and one of the best in the state despite its small size. This is going to be a fantastic show; I look forward to seeing it. If any of you reading this will be in the area this summer, check it out. The Kimbell is worth a visit even without a blockbuster exhibit and the general collection is free.
  • We Try Martin House’s Mayonnaise Beer … ‘for Some Reason’. I like mayo on my sandwiches, but … no.
  • Sad news from the zoo: Dallas Zoo elephant dies. Ajabu was seven and died of a viral infection that is often fatal. There’s no reason to suspect Ajabu’s illness was related to any of the zoo’s problems earlier this year.
  • Last, but not least, for my fellow Gen Xers: Frankie Goes to Hollywood biopic Relax in the works. I’m here for it.

Dispatches from Dallas, May 5 edition

This is a weekly feature produced by my friend Ginger. Let us know what you think.

This week in DFW-area news, some big stories: Colin Allred is running against Ted Cruz, the City of Dallas is under a ransomware attack, and of course, more Harlan Crow & Clarence Thomas news. Plus various election items, Greg Abbott’s dog-whistles about the Cleveland mass shooting, whether it’s worth it for a band to play SXSW, and an exhibit about Bass Reeves in Fort Worth.

Also: don’t forget to vote tomorrow in the May elections in your area, Texans! I voted early but if you didn’t, polls are open Saturday. Please read up on your local elections and vote, particularly in your school board elections. That’s one of the ways extremists funnel their people into politics and their cases into the legal system.

First, as you know, Colin Allred’s possible Senate run has been in the news for a while now. If you haven’t seen his opening pitch video yet, you should spend those three minutes. It’s both wholesome and a bit of a firecracker (not hard; Ted Cruz is an easy target). The announcement story in the DMN is nothing you haven’t already read, but Ted Cruz’s response is kind of funny (Archive link). We all know Cruz is full of ego, but I think most readers of this blog can think of good reasons why Allred might not spend time getting to know Cruz in person.

The Dallas Observer has a good roundup of local and state reaction. The real news from Dallas, though, will come in the reshuffle of candidates now that Allred’s seat (CD-32) is open. The DMN has some potentials on the Democratic side lined up (Archive link) and they’re collectively a good group. I hope to see a solid reshuffle upwards out of this and wish Allred and whoever wins the Dem nomination for CD-32 the best.

Note: I’m not in Allred’s district though I probably would be in a world where Dallas wasn’t gerrymandered so thoroughly. Instead I was in CD-5 (Lance Gooden of Terrell) until the recent reshuffle and now Beth Van Duyne of Denton and a bunch of other mid-DFW suburbs (CD-24) is my representative, even though I live in northeast Dallas. The only one of my electeds mentioned in the DMN’s potential shuffle is my state Senator, Nathan Johnson, who’s not running.

Next up, in Six Degrees of Clarence Thomas, ProPublica has dropped another bomb: Clarence Thomas Had a Child in Private School. Harlan Crow Paid the Tuition. The kid is Thomas’ grand-nephew whom he and his wife are raising. The one year we know the cost of for sure was $6,000/month. Propublica’s sources indicate that if Crow was paying for all four high school years of the young man’s education, the cost could have been more than $150,000. Thomas failed to report any of these gifts on his disclosure forms. Our only senators have weighed in (Archive link) and they just don’t care.

I’ve come to the conclusion that every time we talk about Thomas’ corruption I’m going to have to go all Cicero: Thomas must be impeached.

Related, in case you were wondering: Here’s how much Harlan Crow donated to Dallas elections this year (Archive link). My house is in council district 10 and I’m pleased to report that I knew better than to vote for the candidate Crow backed before I read this story. It’s interesting to see that in local races (District 1) Crow’s secret funding of Clarence Thomas is a campaign issue worth including on third-party attack mailers.

Also related, nationally: Graham falsely claims all nine justices signed Roberts’s letter expressing ethics hearing “concerns”. I was indignant when I initially read the news about Roberts’ letter but it turns out Lindsey Graham was just flat-out lying that the rest of the Court had signed on to the letter. Apparently there was a separate statement of the current standards of ethics. I think most of you will agree that the current standards are insufficient (as this TAP article describes), but as the linked newsletter explains, what the justices signed was a lot less upsetting than what Graham said they signed on to.

Last, but not least, in big stories, the City of Dallas is under a ransomware attack. Charles pointed me at this Bleeping Computer rundown which tells me where my tax dollars are going when they pay the ransom, and now the city has confirmed (Archive link) the identity of the ransomware.

My water bill was paid just before the attack hit, so I haven’t tried to use the billing interface (which is supposedly affected) but I can get into it. What I immediately noticed was that the library’s database was down, which probably means I don’t have to finish the book I’m reading that’s due by Saturday after all. Other areas that have seen some problems include city courts (closed) and DPD (significantly impacted per Chief Garcia), and the notes system that emergency dispatchers use with 911. Here’s the official city statement about the attack, which is updated daily but doesn’t say much. I hope next week’s dispatch includes news that the attack is over.

In other news, mostly election-related:

  • One for Charles: 8-Day Campaign Finance Reports for RISD. This comes from a new-to-me local blog that covers Richardson, the suburb nearest to my house (I’m zoned to RISD but live in Dallas city limits). I’ll be keeping an eye on Mr Steger’s work from here on in.
  • Christian activists are fighting to glorify God in a suburban Texas school district. This is Grapevine-Colleyville ISD, and the article is a good primer on the Christian nationalist push into local school districts and the Patriot Mobile funding connection. One piece of information that’s new to me in this article but doesn’t surprise me in the least is that Ted Cruz’s pastor father is involved in Patriot Mobile. One more reason to get Cruz out of the Senate.
  • Related: This first-person account of the ongoing problems in GCISD. “We’re all out here voting for Republicans and being told a leftist takeover is happening in our schools.” I found this via Frankin Strong’s substack, which I once again commend to your attention.
  • Also in education news, but not about the election: Dallas ISD Superintendent Declares ‘State of Emergency’ on School Pay. “The appeal comes from roughly a dozen districts in the North Texas area, including Mesquite, Richardson, Frisco and Plano ISDs.” These are the suburban districts that kids get out of DISD to attend, so they’re better off than DISD. All of our public schools need more money; please keep that in mind as you vote, and particularly in races where the candidates favor vouchers and other means of putting public money into private schools.
  • Nonpartisan no more? PACs and donors shift the scales on fundraising power in Fort Worth. Some interesting numbers and detail on PAC donations for folks following Tarrant County. It’s easy to be nonpartisan when most everyone is a member of the same party, but things don’t work that way in 2023 and certainly not in the last reddish urban area in Texas.
  • In stories I thought might take the lead in today’s Dispatches, the DMN had an editorial about our only governor’s recent foot-in-mouth handling of the recent mass shooting in Cleveland: Texas’ latest mass shooting is about guns, not immigration (Archive link). In addition to how bad he looks to Texans, Abbott is a national embarrassment with respect to immigration policy (WaPo) on top of his many other bad policy takes. We have to vote him out.
  • Noting here that the latest on Bryan Slaton having sex with an intern too young to drink, mentioned by Charles earlier this week, got no traction with local news in Dallas.
  • The Lege is really Charles’ beat but I wanted to note this piece from the DMN: Electric vehicle owners would pay $200 annual fees under Texas bill sent to Gov. Abbott (Archive link). We’re currently considering a new car at our house, and while an additional $200 a year will just be part of the cost consideration if we decide on an EV, it’s enough to make a difference for a lot of people.
  • The Dallas Observer asks an important question: Where Do Newer Acts Fit Into SXSW Today? The answer is that SXSW is and has always been about exposure. When we lived in Austin (2007-2018), we were regular SXSW music-goers. One year we fell in love with a band called Katzenjammer that was playing in the street (Sixth is closed to vehicle traffic during the festival). We got their list of gigs and saw them several times during the festival, the last time at the late, lamented Threadgill’s, where I was interviewed by Norwegian TV. David Byrne also saw them at SXSW and they were at Bonnaroo that summer on a stage Byrne curated. (They never hit it really big in the US, alas, and broke up in 2016.) It’s not the norm, but it does happen, so some bands feel it’s worth it to work for the exposure. I’m not a musician, so I don’t have a dog in that hunt, but I can see both sides.
  • Exhibit on legendary Black lawman Bass Reeves opens at Fort Worth museum. I didn’t know about the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum in Fort Worth but I’m going to have to check this exhibit out.

Spring Branch ISD versus “James and the Giant Peach”

Note: The following is a guest post, written by my friend Diana Martinez Alexander. I occasionally run guest posts, some of which I solicit and some of which are sent to me.

Southlake. Garland. Frisco. Now Spring Branch is pushing to join the ranks of school districts in Texas who are making the news for all the wrong reasons.

“Parents’ Rights” is the newest buzzword used by conservative politicos, and that has translated into small contingents of vocal individuals with seemingly coordinated talking points on CRT, gender identity, Socio-Emotional Learning, and attacks on books and distrust of librarians and educators. The ACLU has even gotten involved in a case where a high school track team member faced consequences for running in a *gasp* sports bra.

The latest situation centers around an elementary grade field trip to the Main Street theater as a culminating activity for some students reading the book of the same name, James and the Giant Peach. Apparently, a common tactic of allowing cast members to double up on roles or play a character of another gender is a bridge too far for some community members. So after this concern was shared with district officials, the remaining schools from SBISD had their trip to the Main Street Theater canceled.

Never mind that some students read this book with the promise of seeing the play. Never mind that this theater is renowned for providing quality productions for nearly fifty years. Never mind that this may have been one of the few opportunities for these elementary school students to experience theater. Never mind all of the effort and work from staff to make the arrangements for this field trip. Never mind that parents had an opportunity to sign a permission slip for their children to attend.

Instead, a handful of chest-thumping parents have made international news as the district kowtows to their demands. However, this misplaced deference comes at great cost to SBISD. Strictly in terms of our reputation, the public widely admonishes the decision to cancel the field trip and frankly, wonders what the heck is going on in our community. Second, this results in a chilling effect on teachers and staff making any decision which could be perceived as controversial, to the detriment of students’ learning experiences. This could very well lead to a loss of experienced staff afraid of retribution, particularly those who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community. (We are already there, as just this week I heard of at least two instances of staff on leave relating to this increased hostility.) Lastly, this could have a very direct impact on the district’s theater productions, many of which have been nominated for Tommy Tune Awards. It’s a widely used practice to have students play characters of another gender, much like Shakespeare or Grecian theater.

Over and over, I’ve been hearing the same refrain: Parents should have the ability to make decisions on the books, extracurricular activities, and field trip participation for their child. But not all the children in a school community.

In response to an email on 4/27/23 I sent regarding this decision, Superintendent Blaine wrote:

“Based on the concerns we heard, the decision was made to request campuses planning to attend make [sic] alternative arrangements. My responsibility is to ensure that content students are exposed to during school hours is age appropriate. Given the information we had, the decision was made to err on the side of caution. Please understand these decisions are not always easy to make and are always done in the best interest of our students.”

You can also view a response sent by one of the SBISD principals to parents below.

I don’t see any winners here, only losers. The students definitely lose out on an opportunity to engage with their learning, build love of the arts, and experience theater in person. Again, this disproportionately impacts historically marginalized students who may not be otherwise exposed to the arts. A larger population of Title 1 schools are on the north side of the district. (Title 1 schools receive funding based on the percentage of students who qualify for free/reduced lunch.)

And in SBISD, divided by Interstate 10, it’s been a struggle to have voices heard by the board without equitable representation on the board. People are working to even the playing field, with a lawsuit filed in 2021 to change from at-large representation on the school board to single member or a hybrid model.

Speaking personally, I am ready to have someone with an authentic perspective on  the struggles of our Title 1 schools and campus communities on the north side representing us on the board, like candidates David Lopez for Position 1 and Becky Downs for Position 2.  As a graduate myself, former employee, parent of a graduate, and current SBISD community member, I see the devotion and loyalty held by many for our little corner of Harris County.  I also see the determination of those fighting against the erasure of those deemed problematic by right-wing extremists.  Good, I am glad.  

We’ll see on election day, May 6th, if #PeachGate makes a difference in the results.  Otherwise, students may learn the lesson that their families will only matter in decisions if they espouse the basest viewpoints amplified by conservative think tanks that aim to dismantle public education as we know it.  In Spring Branch, we are not willing to let that happen.

More on the demographics of SBISD:

Spring Branch District Profile

Diana Martinez Alexander is currently an educator in a large urban school district in Houston, serving special education students, linguistically diverse populations, and lower socio-economic communities. She is a proud daughter of immigrants, wife, mother, educator, and advocate who is devoted to working for community.

Note from Charles: The Chron story about this saga is here.

Dispatches from Dallas, April 28 edition

This is a weekly feature produced by my friend Ginger. Let us know what you think.

This week in news from the DFW area, book bans (local and statewide), election administration, some scary climate predictions for Galveston, more Six Degrees of Clarence Thomas and Harlan Crow, a local is running for president in 2024, and zoo babies are back!

Also early voting for the May 6 election has started, so get out there and vote in your local elections, fellow Texans. May elections have a low turnout so your vote is important!

Today we’re going to talk about book banning in Texas schools. In case you want to know what’s banned in your local districts, PEN America has a database of school book bans for fall 2022. Frisco ISD is the big north Texas book banner right now, with about 5 of the 9 pages in the index that are devoted to Texas book bans devoted to Frisco’s removals. If that sounds like a lot, it is, and the numbers are increasing: ALA: Number of unique book titles challenged jumped nearly 40% in 2022.

And that’s just the local districts, not getting into the shenanigans the Lege is up to this year: Texas education board could ban textbooks that discuss gender identity under proposed bill. That’s HB 1804 for those of you calling your legislators. Also in the Lege, the House passed HB 900 and Franklin Strong’s Substack post on it is worth your time. He summarizes the discussion based on five points. Three are by Representative Erin Zweiner, who rightfully draws the lines connecting this years book bans (sex and gender) with last year’s book bans (“CRT”). Two are by Representative Jerry Patterson, who sponsored this bill. Patterson represents Frisco ISD, which as we noted above, has removed a lot of books from classrooms and libraries this school year. (We talk about Frisco ISD a lot around here. It’s also where Marvin Lowe, who harassed a transgender student at TASB, is a trustee.)

Dispatches from Dallas, April 21 edition

This is a weekly feature produced by my friend Ginger. Let us know what you think.

This week in Dallas-area news, two big stories: the Tarrant County election chief has resigned, and more on the Harlan Crow angle of the Supreme Court scandal as the man himself speaks. Plus a Texit-related lawsuit, the 50 fastest speeding tickets issued in Texas last year, and more.

Heider Garcia, the Tarrant County elections administrator, was hired out of California in 2018 and resigned this week, effective in June so he can finish out the May election cycle. Read the resignation letter. Like many election administrators in Texas and across the country, Garcia has been under attack since the 2020 election by proponents of the Big Lie that TFG won the 2020 election. Here’s a timeline of his work for the county administering elections (Archive link.) As mentioned in this Star-Telegram article (Archive link), Tarrant County judge Tim O’Hare was about to go after Garcia by calling both a public meeting and a “closed door executive session discussion” after the May 6 election. (Context: he mentioned it a a True Texas Project meeting on April 10; for those who aren’t clicking through, the headline is “Tarrant County judge says low voter turnout will help conservatives in municipal elections” aka saying the quiet part out loud.)

DMN coverage (Archive link) of this story points out that O’Hare’s goal in running for County Judge was to keep Tarrant County red. As I mentioned back in February, O’Hare was part of the group founding an “election integrity task force” in Tarrant County. Keeping Tarrant County red apparently means running a nationally-admired elections administrator out and installing a Republican-approved replacement, which in my experience means somebody who thinks “voter fraud” is too many Black and brown people voting. The Star-Telegram’s editiorial board (Archive link), which looks at this situation with a little more nominal belief in Tim O’Hare’s claims than I do, is alarmed. You should be too.

Last but not least, and not at all related to O’Hare hounding Garcia out of office: 5 years after voter fraud conviction, Crystal Mason pleads her case in return to Tarrant County court.

In Harlan Crow news, the man himself spoke to the Dallas Morning News in two articles earlier this week and I’m going to follow our host’s tradition and just quote extensively from them because sometimes you can’t say it better about a man than he says it about himself.

On the media.

I think that the media, and this ProPublica group in particular, funded by leftists, has an agenda to destabilize the [Supreme] Court. What they’ve done is not truthful. It lacks integrity.

On his friendship with Thomas.

A lot of people that have opinions about this seem to think that there’s something wrong with this friendship. You know, it’s possible that people are just really friends. It blows my mind that people assume that because Clarence Thomas has friends, that those friends have an angle.

Every single relationship — a baby’s relationship to his mom — has some kind of reciprocity

[In response to the question whether Crow would be friends with Thomas if he weren’t a Supreme Court Justice] It’s an interesting, good question. I don’t know how to answer that. Maybe not. Maybe yes. I don’t know.

On Thomas’ morals.

Justice Thomas is a man of integrity and the idea that he would do anything that’s not exactly correct is just not true.

On whether he inherited his money from his father.

Our company was also in distress … Our economic value had deteriorated. It’s hard to know if it was zero, but it was low. I spent about five years doing workouts. We negotiated with a large number of financial institutions over a long period of time doing all this and we tried to do it as honorably as we could.

On being a “Republican megadonor” (really pitched toward the DMN audience).

I have been a donor to moderate Republican individuals running for office, as well as groups that are involved in that kind of world to support more moderate Republican stuff.

On his collection of Nazi memorabilia, which he says is part of a larger collection of American history documents, including the “bad guys”.

So yeah, World War II was a fairly big event in American history. We have a bunch of stuff about World War II, including some of our enemies… For somebody to say that I like those guys would be a weird conclusion, but that’s been in the press recently … That’s exactly the opposite of what the truth is.

The DMN also fact-checked (Archive link) their interview, which may interest you. Meanwhile, the Washington Post has uncovered more information about Thomas’ undisclosed income (this one got my attention because of the name). And my favorite “yellow journalism” take on Crow’s Nazi memorabilia comes from Lyz Lenz’s newsletter last week: Dingus of the Week: People Who Think Owning Nazi Memorabilia is Defensible Actually.

Personally I don’t care to defend Crow’s memorabilia choices, but I certainly think he believes he’s just gathering a collection to do with American history and it has nothing to do with his own beliefs. His indignation that anyone could judge him for being an oligarch who supports authoritarians like Thomas and make a connection between his politics and his memorabilia is genuine. Privilege and wealth are often that kind of convinced of their own righteousness.

After all that, a few small notes on local and statewide news:

Dispatches from Dallas, April 14 edition

This is a weekly feature produced by my friend Ginger. Let us know what you think.

This week in Dallas-area news, we have a lot more on Harlan Crow and the Six Degrees of Clarence Thomas, the Bryan Slaton scandal, various other bad bills and bad ideas coming out of the Lege and the Governor’s office, problems with beer distribution in Texas over spring break/St. Pat’s/SXSW (!), and a laugh at the expense of some Texas figures courtesy of the Barbie selfie generator. No baby animals this week, alas.

This week we’re starting with Harlan Crow once again. As I was writing this post, ProPublica came out with a new piece of the puzzle: Billionaire Harlan Crow Bought Property From Clarence Thomas. The Justice Didn’t Disclose the Deal. Makes you wonder what else is missing from Thomas’ disclosures, doesn’t it?

Another of the big stories is in the Washingtonian: Clarence Thomas’s Billionaire Benefactor Collects Hitler Artifacts. This is not local but the photos are real and they do link to a DMN report on the house. I have never been in the house; we don’t run in those circles. But danah boyd and Ethan Zuckerman have visited and have some things to say.

The DMN has some items for your reading pleasure as well. Harlan Crow, who gave lavish trips to Clarence Thomas, has donated $13M to GOP (Archive link.) Note that he does occasionally give to Democrats, like Henry Cuellar. Also there’s Inside Harlan Crow’s ‘Garden of Evil’ and his collection from Washington to Monet (Archive link), which contains the line “They’re not a celebration of repressive regimes, Crow has said.” See also: I am not a crook. Crow’s collection also inspired this meditation on collections, which poses the question: “[H]ow prestigious is owning a piece of a Supreme Court justice?”

Last, but not least, from the DMN is today’s editorial: Harlan Crow, Clarence Thomas and a diminished Supreme Court (Archive link.) I’m glad DMN’s editorial board is calling for a code of conduct. But if they really believe Crow and Thomas didn’t know what they were doing was wrong, though, I’ve got some NFTs I’d like to sell them.

I have some questions about about Thomas’ response to the ProPublica investigation: he describes the Crows as “close personal friends, who did not have business before the Court”. Specifically, I’d like to know how Thomas thinks of business before the courts. I’d also like to know whether Crow, or any person or entity involved in Crow’s holdings and investments, was involved in suits before the Supreme Court directly or indirectly, for instance by an amicus curiae brief, in the years when Crow hosted Thomas. I’m sure someone out there is doing that research, which I look forward to reading, especially after the latest revelations.

Our second DFW-area hot topic is this week’s scandal in the Lege, which our host has already covered: House Representative Bryan Slaton of Royse City getting caught having an underage female intern (archive link) over to his condo in Austin for late-night drinks. Calling a young staffer over for drinks and then pressuring her to keep her mouth shut about it is gross, even if there’s nothing more to it.

But some GOP reps have called for his resignation and between the tweets linked there and the language in the Texas Tribune story, I suspect we’re going to find out there’s quite a bit more. Personally I wish the young intern all the best and the least traumatic way out of this situation she can get. I wish Slaton all the justice a man who calls queer folks predators while grooming a minor deserves.

In other news:

  • Also in Six Degrees of Clarence Thomas, Crowe’s real estate empire is hosting a UATX symposium this summer. UATX is the not-yet-established University of Austin started by conservatives to rival UT Austin; the Forbidden Courses summer program will be held at the Old Parkland Campus, which is one of the signature properties in the Crow Empire. No word on how much, if anything, UATX is paying Crow for the use of his property.
  • With Tarrant County’s congressional districts ‘carved to bits,’ who represents us? DFW is as carved up in the current round of gerrymandered redistricting as Austin, where I lived for a decade. When I lived in NW Austin, I was in CD-10 along with folks all the way down 290 to Prairie View; when I lived in SE Austin, I was in CD-35 all the way down 35 to San Antonio; when I moved to near NE Dallas, where I now live, I was in CD-5 with half of East Texas. Now I’m in CD-24 with parts of Fort Worth and a lot of the suburbs in between. I didn’t realize CD-30 (Jasmine Crockett’s district, which I think of as South Dallas because it was Eddie Bernice Johnson’s old seat) also extended into Fort Worth, but I’m not surprised.
  • A Good Friday funeral in Texas. Baby Halo’s parents had few choices in post-Roe Texas. Baby Halo was diagnosed with anencephaly (parts of her brain and skull never developed) at 20 weeks. In a civilized state where people have access to abortion care, her mom would have terminated the pregnancy. In Texas, she had to carry an additional three months, undergo labor and give birth to a child who survived only a few hours. And of course there’s no charitable care for her mom or assistance for Baby Halo’s funeral. This is what the Republican party wants. The cruelty may not be the point but it’s certainly not a problem.
  • A story I’m looking forward to is whatever comes of KXAN’s search for stories about TxTag, the central Texas toll authority (found via the Austin subreddit). When I lived in Austin, my only significant problems with TxTag were with NTTA (DFW’s toll authority) failing to read my tag on Dallas tollways. Apparently it’s gotten a lot worse in recent years. I’d rather get rid of some of the toll roads but barring that, I’d at least like my toll tag to work properly.
  • In North Texas legislature news: Police ID person who took Bhojani’s family Qur’an but won’t tell us who it was. That’s not even slightly weird!
  • In another gross story from the Lege, our only governor is poised to pardon a convicted murderer (Archive link) despite his record of “stingy clemency”. If you need more information on why our so-called law-and-order governor would do such a thing, Radley Balko has all the details.
  • In case you were wondering: Texas Legislature’s education savings accounts proposal won’t cover tuition at most Fort Worth private schools. I took a quick look at the tuition numbers from the article. When I sorted them by cost, it looked like the $8000 the Lege is considering would pay the cost of tuition at fewer than 20% of the schools.
  • In sad medical news, Shelley Luther, the woman who broke lockdown in DFW during the height of the pandemic, has apparently suffered a brain aneurysm and is on a ventilator in the ICU. I wish her well and hope she has a complete recovery and a return to private life. Also, I would like to note that a quick Google for research about brain aneurysms and COVID turns up a lot of hits, including this case report and literature review on the NIH site whose abstract concludes “COVID-19 infection could be considered as one of the possible risk factors leading to instability and rupture of intracranial aneurysm.”
  • News from Plano: Plano gets details of long-awaited overhaul of Shops at Willow Bend mall (Archive link). Today I learned that the Shops at Willow Bend was the last enclosed mall built in Texas. It was completed in 2001. I remember visiting it when it was fairly new and we had family living in the area; it’s already obsolete only two decades into its lifecycle.
  • You Had One Job — Country’s Largest Beer Distributor Doesn’t Deliver, Causing Rocky Start in Texas. Reyes Beverage Group, which bought into Texas last year, screwed up deliveries to Austin in March, which means during SXSW, St. Patrick’s, Rodeo Austin, and spring break. In North Texas they also screwed up during the Country Music Awards. I know beer distributing issues in the Lege have been a long-time interest of our host’s so perhaps he’ll have something more on this when it wends its way back to Austin at some later date.
  • You need a laugh! Enjoy these Texas politicians and other notable figures in the Barbie selfie generator for the upcoming movie.
  • Last but not least: 10 Texas Music Museums Worth the Stop on Your Next Road Trip. Austin and Houston both get a look in here so if you’re local to them, check them out.

Dispatches from Dallas, April 7 edition

This is a weekly feature produced by my friend Ginger. Let us know what you think.

This week in Dallas news: Who is the Dallasite at the center of the Clarence Thomas scandal? Plus ACLU support for some area protestors; Fairfield State Park plans; Democrats fighting in Dallas County; and the music scene in Denton.

The biggest story about North Texas right now is, of course, the ProPublica story about Clarence Thomas’ relationship with Dallas real estate magnate and GOP activist megadonor Harlan Crow. The gist of it is that Crow has been taking Thomas to his private vacation estates, hosting Thomas on his yacht for international trips, and flying Thomas around the country on his private jets for two decades and more. Thomas hasn’t reported any of this travel on any of his annual financial disclosures, in violation of federal law.

It’s no surprise that Thomas’ ethics are lacking. Perhaps it’s surprising that he didn’t bother to cover his tracks better, but perhaps Thomas thinks he has transcended the realms of the little people to whom ethics rules and laws apply since he joined the Supreme Court. But we’re not focused on Thomas’ problems. We’re here for the Dallas angle of this story: Harlan Crow.

Trammell Crow, Harlan Crow’s father, founded a namesake commercial real estate development and management firms. Trammell Crow went public and is now an independent subsidiary of the holding firm that owns Coldwell Banker. Harlan Crow manages Crow Holdings, which invests both Crow family money and outside investory assets to the collective tune of $29 billion. Crow Holdings invests in and develops commercial and multifamily residential properties; its best known local project is the redevelopment of Old Parkland. Crow Holding also owns one of the biggest apartment builders in north Texas. The difference between Trammell Crow and Crow Holdings is confusing; it took the DMN article to make it clear to me which parts were which.

Harlan Crow lives in Highland Park and has been involved in a number of Dallas institutions. He once owned D Magazine, which I regularly read and cite in these posts. He’s also on the boards of a number of right-wing groups including the AEI, the George W. Bush Foundation, and the Hoover Institute per this local news explainer. Some additional details about his finances appear in this MarketWatch story (Archive link) but the gist is nobody knows how much money Crow has and if he’s not a billionaire, he’s close. The MarketWatch story also mentions Crow’s donations to Greg Abbott and Mitt Romney, which is to say: what we know about. The Dallas Observer article about the story notes Crow’s friendship with the Bushes and Crow’s gift to Virginia Thomas’ political advocacy nonprofit.

The Dallas Morning News (Archive link) also has an explainer that covers all this information plus a couple of items about his involvement in local politics. In addition to fighting against a publicly owned convention hotel, he had to get his Highland Park estate rezoned so it could also serve as a historical collection. He also has an underground parking garage for his parties and the collection/library, so folks won’t have to park on the neighborhood streets.

The ProPublica article leaves me with the sense that Crow thinks the “we all go out to the ranch and do a little huntin’ and shootin’ and such” excuse will fly. That story has never acknowledged how much business and politicking gets done between people like Crow and Thomas and whoever else was involved. In Texas that story has (officially, superficially) passed muster for a long time. But when the ranch is an upstate New York estate founded by the same woman who built Mar-a-Lago or a fancy yacht, that line becomes a little harder to sell, and the broader US public isn’t as sympathetic as (some) Texans have been. Having said that, there aren’t any teeth in the ethics laws that Thomas violated, so it may not matter.

I’m not a big fan of Jonathan Chait but his piece in the New Yorker is a good summary of the whole business. It’s also a reminder to vote against every one of the people who hold Thomas up as a moral exemplar.

In other news:

Dispatches from Dallas, March 31 edition

This is a weekly feature produced by my friend Ginger. Let us know what you think.

This week in Dallas news: Carroll ISD (Southlake) bails out of TASB in a new phase in the reactionary war on Texas public schools; more on TFG and the symbolism of his Waco visit; Dallas-area cops should not be left alone with computers; get ready for a Taylor Swift exhibit; the menu at Globe Life Field for the upcoming baseball season; and a baby giraffe at the Dallas Zoo.

The big news this week is that Carroll ISD (Southlake) has voted to end its membership in the Texas Association of School Boards. The news video accompanying this article is worth the two minutes of your time; it makes clear what’s going on. State Representative Brian Harrison, R-Midlothian, sent out letters to 1000 school districts to start an exodus from TASB. Similarly, and perhaps surprisingly, the local Fox outlet has a good story on the decision to withdraw (4 minute video). The Fox coverage also talks about the general state of Carroll ISD, one of the first districts targeted by reactionaries for bringing in DEI policies, “CRT”, and other “woke” policies. DEI initiative started after a 2018 incident in which students were caught in video using the N word; in 2021 and 2022 reactionaries captured the board, and the rejection of TASB is one outcome.

You may recall that TASB is also related to the case of Marvin Lowe, the Frisco ISD trustee. He was accused of harassing a trans student at a TASB conference in San Antonio last October. It won’t surprise me if Frisco decides to follow Carroll’s example in the near future.

As noted by Charles here, the The Book-Loving Texan’s Guide to the May 2023 School Board Elections is a resource for finding out about the candidates your local school board election. The document is mostly focused on north Texas districts (Frisco is on the list and Richardson, which is the district my home is zoned into, is in progress), but Houston area districts like Katy and Humble are also included. And they’re also working on central Texas districts like Dripping Springs. While this resource is focused on book banning, that’s a good proxy for anti-DEI, anti-“CRT”, and anti-“woke” sentiment in general.

If this topic interests you, I strongly recommend Clarity & Anger, the substack of Frank Strong, an Austin teacher who put together the Book-Loving Texan’s Guide. His newsletter will keep you up to date on what the bibliophobes and “woke”-haters are up to, and there’s a free tier. I found him on Mastodon, which is where I hang out now that Twitter is toxic. While I can’t say I exactly enjoy reading about haters, I do feel better informed.

In other news:

  • A few notes about TFG’s Waco speech.
    • First, in corrections, I initially read that TFG was speaking on the anniversary of the end of the siege; instead he spoke last weekend at the anniversary of the beginning.
    • These two articles that quote Senator Cornyn’s reaction may interest you: GOP Senators Break With Trump Over ‘Offensive’ Jan. 6 Tribute At Texas Rally and Top Republicans balk at Trump highlighting Jan. 6 rioters, calling it politically unwise. Obviously it’s a long time until Cornyn faces the GOP primary field again, but I’m putting a pin in it for 2026.
    • Talking Points Memo again points to the choice of Waco as a venue and the commemoration of the Branch Davidian standoff in this post. There are a couple of follow-up reader notes on the same topic that are also worthwhile. Those of us who are old enough to remember Waco as it happened recall how awful it was, not least because it embodied the fever dream of angry white men holding out against federal force. We have too many angry people with guns in Texas to encourage fighting the federal government in 2023.
  • Department of “Dallas cops can’t use computers”, part one for this week: What’s known about the 21 cases reviewed for missing, deleted Dallas police evidence [Archive link] and Is missing Dallas police evidence impacting murder cases? Defense lawyers want answers [Archive link]. The city of Dallas is going to be sorting this out for a long time; the screwups involve both current cases and cases already decided. It’s also going to cost the city and the court system to retry cases and to compensate any defendants who receive a not guilty verdict in retrials. It implicates the credibility of the police and their evidence in future cases. All of this is bad for the judicial system, which has plenty of problems without the police losing or destroying evidence, but DPD brought these further problems on themselves by sloppy evidence handling.
  • Department of “Dallas cops can’t use computers”, part two for this week: Dallas County says sold computers may have contained the public’s personal info. [Archive link]. Short version: the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department failed to properly wipe computers that were taken out of service and sold at auction, so they may still contain confidential information from the county’s internal court databases. Oops.
  • Shared Air DFW is a visualization resource for air pollution in the Metroplex. It takes data from air quality monitors (currently 100 are being distributed throughout the region) to show real-time air quality online. It’s good that we can now see this information but the information is depressing. It’s a UT Dallas project, so thanks to UT Dallas and the funders. Related, from the Texas Tribune: The EPA wants to limit how much soot you breathe. Here’s what it means for Texas and one of its historic Black towns. Joppa, the freedman’s town in question, is less than 10 miles from downtown Dallas. The Shared Air project is concentrating early efforts there precisely because their air quality is so poor.
  • On a sad note for me personally, my advisor at Rice passed away earlier this month. Dr. Katherine Fischer Drew was a fantastic teacher, historian, and leader in her discipline, as you can see in her obituary at the Houston Chronicle. She touched a lot of lives, including mine, and I’m grateful for the advice I got from her and the lessons I learned in and out of her classes.
  • Carnivorous Plant Gallery Known as the Texas Triffid Ranch Is Closed for Good. I’m also sad about this; I have friends who had visited the ranch and I’d seen some of the plants at events at the Perot (Dallas’ science museum) before the pandemic. I never managed to get out to the ranch myself, unfortunately. I wish Mr. Riddell the best in his future endeavors and hope to see the plants he sent to the Arboretum this spring.
  • A 24-Inch Burger is Among Six New Food Items for the 2023 Season at Globe Life Field. Posting this in the hopes it will lure Charles up here this summer for a game and to try the food. I personally am going to have some of the Hurtado barbecue the next time we go with a baseball-oriented friend.
  • From my inbox: Taylor Swift isn’t just coming to Arlington to perform. She’s also the subject of the Arlington Museum’s summer exhibit: Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour Collection will be here from June through September for all your Swift needs. Tickets go on sale April 13 for members, and April 17 for the rest of us.
  • Hipster ’80s-style roller skating rink to wheel into Dallas Design District. I’m already asking around for my friends to join me when this opens for both events: the visit to the roller rink and the visit to the ER that will inevitably follow when I break something falling on my butt.
  • Last but not least, in baby animal news: It’s a girl: Dallas Zoo welcomes 131-pound giraffe calf [Archive link.] No name yet for the baby girl. I’m really excited about this one; giraffes are my favorite animal.

Dispatches from Dallas, March 24 edition

This is a weekly feature produced by my friend Ginger. Let us know what you think.

This week in DFW: A run of school violence including a fatal school shooting, in DFW area schools; a former president comes to Waco on a major Texas anniversary; ongoing fallout from the DPD evidence scandal; and cricket comes to Texas in a big way.

Monday in Arlington, two students were shot, [Archive link] one fatally, before school began. Jashawn Poirier, age 16, died in the shooting and another unnamed student was injured. The fifteen-year-old shooter is in juvenile detention in Tarrant County, charged with capital murder. No motive for the shooting has been offered so far.

Meanwhile in Dallas, there was a shooting at Thomas Jefferson High School in northwest Dallas on Tuesday. One student was shot in the arm in the parking lot a few minutes after class let out for the day. The shooter has been arrested according to the superintendent of Dallas ISD. Again, investigators haven’t ascribed a motive.

McKinney ISD also had a weapons incident on Monday, but fortunately it only involved a middle schooler using a knife one of his classmates, causing minor injuries [Archive link.] The knife-wielding student was taken into police custody and the injured student was taken to the hospital to receive medical care.

As the band director at Thomas Jefferson said to the Dallas Morning News, It’s not an ethnic thing, or a rich or poor thing, or a ZIP code thing of where you live or where you go to school. It’s happening everywhere.” Meanwhile our only governor continues to advocate against any restrictions on gun purchases or ownership, and has described legislation to raise the age for gun purchasers to 21 as unconstitutional.

In other news:

Dispatches from Dallas, March 17 edition

This is a weekly feature produced by my friend Ginger. Let us know what you think.

This week in North Texas, we have bad bills filed by our local legislators and follow-ups on a variety of ongoing stories in North Texas including the Dallas Zoo, the buyer of the Roe v Wade archive, and the back-and-forth in Frisco ISD about trans kids.

The deadline to file bills in the Texas legislature has passed, so it’s time for a rogue’s gallery of bad bill filers from North Texas. Take note of these names and remember to remind your pals from these parts that friends don’t let friends vote for dumbasses who put forward garbage bills.

Senator Phil King of Weatherford (west of Fort Worth) is a co-sponsor of bills designed to restrict the development of renewable energy in Texas in favor of fossil fuel power plants [Archive link].

Representative Bryan Slaton of Royse City (northeast of Dallas) wants to put a secession referendum on the ballot, which is probably illegal and unconstitutional, but who cares about that? He also filed HB 42, which would define gender-affirming care for kids as child abuse.

As mentioned in this article, Representative Nate Schatzline of Fort Worth filed HB 1266, which defines commercial enterprises that host drag shows as sexually oriented businesses. The linked article is about him harassing a constituent who responded by posting a picture of Schatzline in a dress to social media.

Representative Jared Patterson of Frisco has a number of bad bills, mentioned in this article about his Don’t Say Gay Bill. His greatest hits for the 2023 session also include abolishing the city of Austin and banning minors from social media.

Representative Matt Shaheen of Plano (of whom more later) filed a bill to make daylight savings time permanent, which is less harmful than other bills described here but is not what I’d personally consider a high priority in the 2023 session. He’s also behind HB 620, which would end the Robin Hood school tax recapture. (This local news story has some numbers for what Robin Hood does to Dallas and Plano schools.) While there’s quite a bit of room for debate around Robin Hood, I’m personally suspicious of a bill by a Republican who’s in favor of “school choice”, aka defunding public schools and subsidizing private schools. Shaheen is a little smart to be on the dumbass list and is all the more dangerous for it.

One good bill I like comes from Austin, where Representative Donna Howard filed to exempt menstrual products and a variety of pregnancy and baby needs from state sales tax.

In other stories:

Dispatches from Dallas, March 10 edition

This is a weekly feature produced by my friend Ginger. Let us know what you think.

This week in Dallas news: The DPD evidence scandal grows, more about Marvin Lowe, water cremations, winter weather, Star Wars, and finally some good news at the Dallas Zoo.

I complain a lot about the Dallas Morning News, but they’ve done a good job covering the Dallas PD evidence scandal. Here are the two most recent stories about what the investigation into missing evidence is finding: Murder cases could be in jeopardy as Dallas police review 450 cases for missing evidence [Archive link] and What we know about Dallas police search for missing video evidence in murder cases [Archive link]. 13 homicide convictions are in jeopardy and now they’re going through violent crime cases. One does wonder whether this is a problem with DPD or whether review of other law enforcement agencies would show the same kinds of negligence in evidence handling. Meanwhile, I hope the last line of this DMN story about official reactions to the missing evidence [Archive link is correct and someone is going to be held responsible for these screwups.

Dispatches from Dallas, March 3 edition

This is a weekly feature produced by my friend Ginger. Let us know what you think.

This week in DFW, our most interesting story is a brouhaha in Frisco ISD, but we also have an interview with Sarah Weddington’s co-counsel in Roe v. Wade, trouble with the Dallas SPCA, local elections news, including speculation about who’ll go for Colin Allred’s seat if he takes on Ted Cruz, and more. Be sure to scroll down for a link to a picture of bald eaglets!

Marvin Lowe, a Frisco ISD trustee elected in the May 2022 cycle, had some kind of interaction with a trans student from Brownsville at a statewide educational conference in September of last year. The student reports that Lowe said a number of inappropriate things, he’s backed up by his mother and at least two other adults, and he and his family seem to have gone through official channels until last week, when they spoke to the Dallas Morning News [Archive link] because they weren’t getting any satisfaction. Lowe apparently talked about his “junk” and naked people in locker rooms and people getting aroused to the student; also, according to everybody but Lowe, an activist had to intervene to get Lowe to leave the then sixteen-year-old student alone.

Lowe didn’t want to talk to the DMN, but the subject came up at a Frisco ISD board meeting on February 26 (Frisco Star), exciting significant controversy from speakers. Lowe denied everything at the meeting but has since gone on a conservative talk radio show to defend himself (DMN archive link) but his story has already started to shift: now he says he talked to the student’s mother about locker rooms.

Lowe won his seat from incumbent Kathy Hebert by 51 votes after a recount. His candidate website is bare-bones but mentions his opposition to CRT in the schools. Here’s some coverage of the race and Lowe’s supporters in Texas Monthly from last May, which demonstrates how Lowe’s candidacy is part of the ongoing reactionary attack on public schools, teachers, and curriculums in north Texas.

I don’t expect Lowe will resign, or be forced to, but I don’t expect we’ve heard the last of this case, or Lowe.

In other news:

Dispatches from Dallas, February 24 edition

This is a weekly feature produced by my friend Ginger. Let us know what you think.

This week in Dallas area news, we now know the candidates for various races in the May elections in the Metroplex; staffing and evidence issues in the Dallas Police Department; and news from Dallas Museums. Also, from the border by way of the BBC, a fascinating short film about a Texas town that is now part of Mexico.

Dispatches from Dallas, February 17 edition

Note: this is the second edition of the Dallas-area news roundup conducted by my friend Ginger. Issue 1 was last Friday. We got a lot of positive response to that and I definitely like it, so on we go. The title is taken from the email Ginger sent me, so we’ll give that a try as the feature name. Let us know what you think. Thanks!

This week’s DFW news is mostly about the suburbs: Southlake, Carrolton & Farmer’s Branch, and Arlington are featured trouble spots. Also, I’ve found, which archives web pages and may be useful for reviewing articles on the Dallas Morning News or the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. If you can’t get through to an article I’ve linked, I may have archived it for you.

Dallas-area news roundup, inaugural edition

Hello, Off the Kuff readers! I’m Ginger and I’ve been friends with our host for nigh onto thirty years. Back in the early 2000s, when they called it “warblogging”, I had a blog, but I’ve long since retired it. I’ve been sending Charles items from the news in Dallas, where I now live, for a while and offered to start doing local news roundups for DFW.

I was born and raised in Houston, lived for a decade in Austin, and have lived in Dallas for four and a half years now: long enough to get familiar with a lot of local politics but not long enough to have found everything about the area that’s interesting. My political interests are broad, from immigration (I used to work as a paralegal for a corporate immigration lawyer) to reproductive choice (Charles and I infiltrated an anti-abortion activist meeting together to report back to our local Planned Parenthood many years ago), to disability issues. When I’m not doing politics, I read a lot, mostly history, mysteries, and science fiction/fantasy, listen to a lot of music, and play tabletop roleplaying games in person and online.

What you can expect to see from me is news from the DFW metroplex, centered mostly on Dallas and the Dallas-side suburbs mixed with some local stories that I get from friends who are still in Austin and a few larger stories that grab my interest. I’ll probably post about a half-dozen links every week and we’ll see how it goes.

Note from Charles: The idea to do this kind of Dallas-centric news roundup emerged from an email exchange Ginger and I had. It was Ginger’s blog, which I stumbled across in 2001, that gave me the impetus to do this blogging thing, and I’m delighted to have her voice on here. We’ll see how this goes, and we may come up with a suitable name for the feature if we’re inspired. Let me know what you think.

Larry Veselka: The Chron got it wrong in the County Judge endorsement

Judge Lina Hidalgo

(Note: The following is a guest post that was submitted to me. I occasionally solicit guest posts, and also occasionally accept them from people I trust.)

A couple of weeks ago the Chronicle Editorial Board endorsed Judge Hidalgo’s opponent in a schizophrenic editorial that any objective reader who read it without seeing the headline first would have thought was an endorsement for reelecting Judge Hidalgo. Harris County voters should take it substantively as one.

The editorial praised Judge Hidalgo, in many ways, e.g.:

-appreciating her “dynamic mix of wonkishness and progressive optimism” and her being an ‘inspiration to many”

-saying “if given the choice, we’d rather live in Hidalgo’s vision of Harris County, where government is inclusive, transparent and ethical, policy isn’t tainted by politics, the air is cleaner, the streets are safer, more children can attend pre-K, and climate change is treated with the urgency it deserves”

-“Hidalgo has made good on her promises, including fairness in distributing Harvey funding on a ‘worst-first’ basis and investments in badly needed air monitors in polluted neighborhoods and early childhood education”

– acknowledging, but unduly faintly in only one sentence, her courageous, tenacious, yet gracious leadership in fighting COVID in a way that probably saved thousands, if not more than ten thousand lives of local citizens;

– her handling of disasters, including Winter Storm Uri with “poise and a clear head”

– “it’s true that [Hidalgo] boasts a proposed budget that that would have increased funding for law enforcement… she never tried to ‘defund’ police… her plan would boost law enforcement funding $97 million more than the previous fiscal year, including pay raises for some ‘frontline deputies.”

So what did they see that was so wonderful about her opponent that swayed their opinion when they said this about her:

– She “can come off as combative, talking over others” and interrupting them;

– The board initially backed someone else in the Republican primary, “citing her lack of experience in governing”

– Asking whether “voters should trust an un-tested first-time candidate” without even mentioning that she was recruited to run by Ted Cruz and his wife;

– Her primary promise of “hiring 1,000 new law enforcement officers…is simplistic at this point” acknowledging how dubious such a promise is in light of the tight County budget;

– Her position in the primary opposing the reform of the misdemeanor bail system and incorrectly blaming that reform for the supposed “spike in violent crime” … “would be a deal-breaker for [the Board]” but they will now rely on her saying that she has changed her position, (will you?);

– “her understanding of the system may be incomplete and in some cases even flawed”

– She admitted that prosecuting polluters is “not first and foremost to her” and she does not think the County should address climate change, which the Board characterized as “grating in a low-lying coastal community baking in industrial emissions.”

The editorial claims that the Board was swayed by Judge Hidalgo’s supposed “failure to respond with urgency to Harris County’s crime wave,” citing as the critical factor the backlog in the Courts, while simultaneously acknowledging that Judge Hidalgo “didn’t cause the backlog … has no control over courtroom decisions on bail … [and] isn’t to blame for the provision in the Texas Constitution that guarantees virtually every defendant, even those with violent criminal records, an initial right to bail.”

The editorial went on to acknowledge that:

– “Harris County is far from the most dangerous place in the country, as Republican hyperbole would have it;

– “Mercifully, violent crime is currently declining and even at its peak, criminologists ranked Houston’s murder rate in the middle of the pack among major cities. Last year’s rate in unincorporated Harris County stayed flat….”

– The “felony backlog is down 23% since January.”

So why would the Board’s ultimate conclusion be in such stark contrast to most of its arguments?

The disconnect smacks of a lack of journalistic integrity. Did the Chronicle’s management override the independence of the Editorial Board, strong-arming the Board into backing down from its true position? The fact that the “News” department ran three front page stories about Judge Hidalgo’s opponent immediately after the endorsement evidences support for the conclusion that the lines between departments were blurred, an unforgiveable breach in journalistic ethics.

The Republicans hatched a plan for the midterms to over-hype an increase in crime coming out of two tough years under pandemic lockdowns and layoffs. Even though the Chronicle admits that violent crime has leveled off or dropped some this year, the Republicans needed something to scare people into voting Republican. This became more important once the decision overturning Roe v. Wade this summer kicked off a surge of renewed enthusiasm by
supporters of reproductive rights to register and drive supporters to the polls. Right-wing multi-millionaires and billionaires opposed to the County’s efforts to prevent flooding and pollution, some contributing as much as $350,000 to $400,000 each, began showering Judge Hidalgo’s opponent with millions of dollars of contributions to pay for deceitful attack ads against Judge Hidalgo. They knew that she could not match the millions flowing in, because Judge Hidalgo pledged in 2018 not to accept any contributions from the County’s vendors. In other words, she lived up to her campaign promise to do what all campaigns should do, but none other do, end “Pay-for-Play” politics. The Republican contributors knew that and knew, if County Judge Hidalgo were reelected with the 10 point lead she had earned over the last 3 1⁄2 years, it would mean the Republican state leaders that have carried so much water for them, and have been so bad for the majority of working people of Texas, could be in trouble. So they had to deliver the hits on Judge Hidalgo’s deserved popularity by funding a massive barrage of misleading arguments in favor of a flawed opponent.

The myriad issues confronting Harris County right now require keeping Judge Hidalgo’s steady hands on the wheel. It would be truly unconscionable for the Chronicle’s flawed endorsement and the millions of dollars in deceitful attack ads to wrest her hands away merely to turn it over to an inexperienced right-winger beholden to Trump, Cruz, and the multimillionaire and billionaire classes. Our democracy and our Constitutional rights are at stake. Embrace the wisdom expressed in the editorial while rejecting its inconsistent conclusion by voting to re-elect County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

Larry R. Veselka is a Houston lawyer and former County Chair for the Democratic Party who has been active in politics for 50 years.

NOTE FROM CHARLES: I’m just going to put this here:

A question that maybe the Chron editorial board should have asked themselves.

A response to Paxton’s response

As you may recall, back in June we learned about a State Bar of Texas complaint against Ken Paxton for his ridiculous and seditious lawsuit that attempted to overturn the 2020 Presidential election. That complaint was filed by four people: Kevin Moran, retired journalist, President of the Galveston Island Democrats; David Chew, former Chief Justice of the 8th Court of Appeals; Brynne VanHettinga, a now inactive member of the Texas Bar; and Neil Cohen, a retired attorney. A second complaint was later filed by Lawyers Defending American Democracy, part of a group that included four former Presidents of the State Bar of Texas.

I’ve had some email correspondence with Neil Cohen, who was introduced to me via a mutual friend, since that first complaint came to light. He sent me the following analysis of Paxton’s responses to the complaints:

Ken Paxton’s recent [7/15] Response to four Grievances arising from his December lawsuit to overturn the election demonstrates that his claims of a stolen election and of illegal voting procedures were merely posturing to improve his political standing. The top law officer of Texas put our system of democracy in grave danger for his own political benefit.

The Grievances charged that his lawsuit is filled with falsehoods and absurd legal claims, thus violating attorney disciplinary rules. Paxton’s response failed to defend large sections of the lawsuit. As to his claims of massive voting improprieties, Paxton stated that he had hoped to develop the evidence during trial. (1) That, however, was his only evidence in support of his stolen election claims. Thus, Paxton’s tacit admission that he has no evidence to support his claims is strong proof that there is no evidence of a stolen election. The “Big Lie” is indeed a big lie. His admission is also in marked contrast to his repeated claims in the month between the filing of the lawsuit and the meeting of the electors on Jan 6 that the election was stolen and his urging Trump supporters to take action. Those claims culminated in Paxton’s appeal to a mob to “keep fighting” shortly before they invaded the Capitol Building.

As to legal claims, Paxton did not offer a defense of several essential claims (2), including the most important, that the proper remedy was overturning the election and disenfranchising millions of voters. On the issue of standing, where by a 7-0 vote [two justices ruled based on other issues] the Supreme Court had rejected Paxton’s arguments that Texas had the right to dictate to four other sovereign states how they conducted their election lawsuit, Paxton merely reiterated his arguments.

Instead of better defending his lawsuit, Paxton instead relies on two very weak procedural arguments. First, the Bar shouldn’t hear the Grievances because the filers weren’t his client. (3) The Disciplinary Rules, however, specifically provide that anyone with information about rule violations can file a grievance. (4) He also argues, without citing cases specific to attorney discipline, that the separation of powers doctrine prevents a court system from disciplining an attorney general for a court filing. (5) This is contrary to the cases I found. (6) Also, moving from the abstract level of his argument to the specific facts of this case, Paxton is arguing for the privilege to lie and to bring lawsuits that lack any reasonable basis. That privilege is non-existent. In fact, an attorney appearing before a court acts as an officer of the court and is therefore subject to discipline from the court (and from the relevant bar associations).

The weakness of Paxton’s Response demonstrates that the lawsuit violates attorney disciplinary rules and that his claims of a stolen election are nonsense. Because of the serious consequences of Paxton’s action, including an invasion of the Capitol Building, the Bar should impose its most serious punishment, disbarment. In addition, Paxton should be removed from office.

1 Response, pp. 12-13.
2 What he did defend — See Response, p. 8 (standing), p. 10 (electors clause), p. 11 (equal protection and due process).
3 Response, p. 13.
4 The second question (which is not numbered) states, "Any person who believes that a rule of professional conduct has been violated may file a complaint with the State Bar."  (emphasis added).
5 Response, p. 20
6 In re Lord, 255 Minn. 370 (Minn. 1959) • 97 N.W.2d 287; Massameno v. Statewide Grievance Committee, 234 Conn. 539 (Conn. 1995) • 663 A.2d 317.

I have a copy of the Paxton response here, and further notes from Cohen on the response are here.

As it happens, there was also a story in Salon about the complaint and Paxton’s limited and technicality-laden response to it:

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, an ardent Trump supporter who was the lead plaintiff in a last-ditch Supreme Court case aimed at overturning the 2020 election, appears to be backing away from his past claims of widespread election fraud. Facing discipline or even potential disbarment in Texas, Paxton now merely alleges that there were “irregularities” in battleground states, while still suggesting those could somehow have affected the overall result

Paxton’s apparent retreat came earlier this month in response to an array of grievances filed by several members of the Texas bar: retired lawyer Neil Cohen; Kevin Moran, president of the Galveston Island Democrats; former Texas Court of Appeals Chief Justice David Chew; and Dr. Brynne VanHettinga. In their initial complaint, the group argued that Paxton should face professional discipline over his bid to undermine the 2020 presidential election, saying that Paxton’s December petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that President Biden’s victory should be set aside, was both frivolous and unethical.

In Paxton’s response to their grievances, which was provided to Salon, the attorney general argued that “Texas’s filings were not frivolous” because “the 2020 election suffered from significant and unconstitutional irregularities in the Defendant States.” Paxton further claimed that, by this logic, he and his office “did not violate the disciplinary rules.”

Paxton’s response is a clear departure from his previous rhetoric, much of which explicitly supported former President Trump’s grandiose conspiracy theories about systemic election fraud. Earlier this month, Paxton told a Dallas crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference that his “fight” for election security “is not done.”

“When people tell you there is no election fraud, let me just tell you my office right now has 511 counts in court because of COVID waiting to be heard,” Paxton continued. “We have another 386 that we’re investigating. If you add those together, that’s more election fraud than my office has prosecuted since it started investigating election fraud years and years ago.”

Paxton is notably less bombastic in his response to the Texas bar, but mentions the same “irregularities” that his original Texas suit claimed had tainted the elections in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin. Effectively all of those supposed “irregularities” were changes in voting rules made in response to the COVID-19 crisis, which created significant challenges for both in-person and absentee voting.


In an evident attempt to ward off the threat of disbarment, Paxton’s response seeks to explain why the suit had any legal basis or “standing.” He argues, somewhat confusingly: “Texas’s assertion that it had standing in Texas v. Pennsylvania could not have been frivolous. There are no Supreme Court cases contrary to its position that it had standing.”

But Paxton indirectly admits, in Cohen’s view, that he had no real evidence of fraud, and apparently “hoped to develop the evidence during discovery.” In other words, his entire case could be interpreted as a fishing expedition, or just an attempt to rile up the Trump base with unsupported allegations. “That’s in contrast to his behavior for the month after filing the lawsuit,” Cohen said, “when he repeatedly claimed the election was stolen and urged people to take action.”

So now you know. I have no idea when the State Bar may issue a ruling, and as richly as Paxton deserves to be disbarred, I can’t see them doing much more than issuing some kind of reprimand. But at least that would be something. My thanks to Neil Cohen for the info and the guest post.

Bill Kelly: Voting Matters

(Note: The following is a guest post that was submitted to me. I occasionally solicit guest posts, and also occasionally accept them from people I trust.)

The national headlines have highlighted the increased turnout among Harris County voters, and rightfully so. But rather than discuss or project what that increase is likely to mean for election results, it is worth noting the actual mechanics of how so many of our neighbors are able to cast these early votes.

Chris Hollins, our Harris County Clerk, and his team have rolled out an impressive and imaginative early voting plan. Commissioner’s Court deserves credit for making the needed investments so that citizens in Harris County can safely access the ballot even during this pandemic.

Now I’ve been working in campaigns in Harris County since 2003, but this is the first time we have operated under a Democratic County Clerk for a general election. And the difference it has made is truly amazing, and I hope people can tell the subtle changes that are making a significant difference in giving voters access.

First, there is the timing. Governor Abbott’s decision to expand the normal 12 day early voting period to 18 days was critical to promoting a safer – and less crowded – voting experience. The tremendous turnout we have seen in the last 9 days would have packed polling locations without this additional time.

Days are made up of hours, and the investment by Harris County to keep polls open from 7am to 7pm is actual a big deal. Under previous clerks, early voting hours were restricted to the hours between 8:30am to 4:00pm during the first 5 days of early voting.

It is common sense and now self-evident that more people are turning out when the polls are open longer at more convenient times for voters.

What I want to point out is that proposition remains true in reverse: fewer voters access early voting when there are fewer hours.

While Harris County was operating under restrictive hours, Tarrant, Travis, and Dallas Counties all offered more hours for early voting. The Harris County excuse? It would cost more.

Having a Clerk who values democracy matters.

Second, locations – locations – locations. Today, there are 122 early voting locations around Harris County. In 2018, that number was close to 40. Again, this is not a difficult concept, but to see the scale of progress is really amazing.

Aside from tripling the number, nowhere is the location accessibility factor more visible than on our major college campuses. Having early voting locations at the University of Houston (Go Coogs!), Rice, and Texas Southern is a game changer.

In 2008, the closest early voting locations to each of these campuses was the Fiesta near NRG or the HCC Southeast location near I-45 South & 610.

For anyone familiar with Houston geography, these locations are not convenient – at all – to any of these campuses.

Again, Harris County choose not to place an easily accessible early voting locations before Hollins did for any general election. If you think this was an accident, I’d point to the campus openings of Rice in 1912, UH in 1939, and TSU in 1946. It should not take over 70 years to get an early vote site on these campuses.

Investing in over 100 locations in a county of 4.7 million should be the new normal – if the goal is to increase voter access and participation.

Finally, election day itself has been transformed to offer greater access. In campaign after campaign in the 2000s, the message of “you can early vote anywhere in the county” would quickly pivot to “you can ONLY vote in your neighborhood precinct.”

You wanna see a campaign manager in a panic? Tell them their election day doorhangers have the wrong polling location.

While Harris County clung to this system, Fort Bend creating election day Voting Centers, which allowed anyone in the county to vote at these locations on election day. It was an easy message to point toward a location where every voter in the county could vote. Another choice made that made voting less accessible.

Now, voters in Harris County can vote at ANY voting location on election day. For low propensity voters, the ease of pulling into a polling location and hearing, “yes, you can vote here,” again helps more voters participate in voting.

Timing, locations, and countywide access are all concrete policy changes that have been instituted by the Harris County Clerk since 2018. But these changes should not be the end point.

Even before the voting process begins, state policy looks to restrict access in ways that are laughable. The lack of online voter registration in Texas is a clear indictment of suppression policy. Despite statewide support for the policy, Senator Carol Alvarado faced opposition on her bill to create this online voter registration system by Republicans in Harris County.

Wonder why.

To be clear, the Texas Election Code allows for astronauts to voter from space . . . but does not allow for online voter registration. Seriously.

Online registration is less expensive, much cleaner with data input, and is unquestionable easier for citizens looking to register than mailing in an application.

Texans are choosing their new elected leaders right now. Much of the Texas political power structure does not want a larger voter turnout, which is directly reflected by the voting policy.

Harris County decided to invest in greater voter access. It is making a difference.

Bill Kelly works as the Director of Government Relations for Mayor Sylvester Turner. He has worked on the winning campaigns for Mayor Bill White (2003), State Rep. Hubert Vo (2004), Council Member Peter Brown (2005), State Rep. Ellen Cohen (2006), and the Harris County Coordinated Campaign (2008).

Matt Glazer: To see boon, clean energy needs Congress

(Note: The following is a guest post that was submitted to me. I occasionally solicit guest posts, and also occasionally accept them from people I trust.)

I’m a bit of an Austin-area expert when it comes to weird homes. So, when I bought my own home last year—going in a more traditional route—I was surprised when I was left no less transfixed. Our builder had prioritized solar panel installations and, in the weeks, after settling in, I made a routine of watching the monitor tick up as our 12 panels fed energy back into the grid. Truth is I’m not the only one mesmerized. Watching the green bar climb and doing what we can to be a net producer of clean, affordable energy is a fun little game. Luckily, clean energy has caught the attention of Texans just as easily as the panels on my roof catch rays.

For more than a century, Texas has asserted itself as a national and global energy leader. Much of this legacy is owed to our wells of oil, but more so it is owed to our ability to build an economy around those prospects. Clean energy can continue to expand them beyond the subterranean. We were the first state to codify an energy efficiency resource standard after all and already Texas is top five in the nation for solar, and first in the nation for wind capacity. If you have ever driven through Texas, you can see evidence of this across the horizon from the panhandle to the coast.

All told—from renewables to clean vehicles, energy efficiency, clean fuels, and grid and storage—nearly a quarter of a million jobs were held in Texas’ clean energy industry last year. COVID-19 has detracted from those numbers depressing the state’s clean energy workforce by 10%—at least temporarily. Despite the setback, a growing commitment to reduce carbon emissions means clean energy is no longer being considered an alternative and instead as a necessary and growing component of diversified portfolios.

This will assure its subsistence, but while consistent demand could pull the industry back bit-by-bit, a major federal investment just might sweep the Lone Star State into this millennia’s energy boon. What the country needs now is a post-pandemic economic plan that spurs energy innovation, builds out 21st century infrastructure and continues driving down carbon emissions while creating 21st century jobs.

Though we often consider clean energy at scale, like in the case of utility companies, small businesses have played a significant role in clean energy’s early trajectory. In 2019, nearly two out of every three clean energy workers—of which there were 3.3 million in 2019—were employed by a small business. But, with manufacturing advancements driving down costs, the popularity of reduced carbon emissions rising and a steady churn of state-of-the-art tech reaching the market, clean energy’s entrepreneurial scene is far from saturated. One can even still imagine the potential for a new generation of Texas energy titans eventually adding to an already storied energy tradition.

To get there, however, requires a commitment not just from dedicated contractors like my own or local officials or even from Fortune 100 corporations, but from national leadership representing us in Congress. This issue is not a partisan one but an economic one, given the country’s current straits, we cannot afford to let the clean energy wallow in its COVID depression.

To truly capitalize on the economic and environmental potential of the vast prairies, strong wind gusts and access to persistent sun that outfit Texas, not to mention an intrepid workforce, we need our representatives and senators to put into action plans that bolster clean energy development and job creation while continuing to build on America’s leadership driving down carbon emissions.

I am grateful to have low cost, high production solar cells on my home. I am grateful for the incentives that made it possible to do something good and lower my total costs. I look at the energy I am creating for my city and know that an install team, builder, designer, electrician, and manufacturing company all created jobs. Jobs with an eye towards the future of Texas. Congress has an opportunity to continue to foster this innovation so we can be leaders in this established clean energy economy.

Matt Glazer is the past Executive Director of Progress Texas and co-founder of Blue Sky Partners.

Matt Glazer: A way to end surprise medical bills

(Note: The following is a guest post that was submitted to me. I occasionally solicit guest posts, and also occasionally accept them from people I trust.)

At a young age, I had to deal with medical issue after medical issue. It started with trips to M.D. Anderson and ended with an emergency appendectomy. Three major illnesses in 2 years was hard, but we were fortunate enough not to be financially destroyed by these unexpected medical expenses.

Fast forward to now and I am constantly nervous to go see a doctor. Yes, I have insurance now (something that was impossible before the Affordable Care Act), but I am also a pawn in a subterranean fight between health care providers and insurance companies. Basic treatments that should be covered sometimes aren’t and with no rhyme or reason. Then I am hit with unexpected bill that sends me back to eating ramen or cutting expenses again.

There is a real, bi-partisan opportunity to do something about this and protect consumers.

As COVID-19 continues to disrupt life in Texas throughout the country, health care access has never been more important. Now more than ever, people need to see a doctor when they’re sick – not just for their own health, but (given the contagiousness of the disease) for the health of those around them.

Yet some in Washington, D.C. are putting that access at risk in a ham-fisted attempt to stop surprise medical bills.

Most of us have dealt with the shock of a surprise medical bill in recent years – those charges you get billed for after getting medical care, when your insurance company refuses to foot the bill for an out-of-network health provider. Congress has been debating this issue for over a year, and two main camps have emerged. One group wants to end these disputes by creating an independent dispute resolution (IDR) system, where providers and insurance companies are pushed toward a negotiating table to figure out their differences, and patients are left out of the process. The other group wants pre-determined reimbursement rates for services based on insurance companies’ in-network rates.

The first option, IDR, is similar to what we passed last year for insurance plans regulated by the state of Texas – one of the country’s most patient-friendly surprise medical bill laws which won bipartisan support. Other states, such as New York, have instituted a similar system with successful results. (Unfortunately, these state fixes only apply to plans regulated by the state, which is why Congress needs to act. For example, in Texas only 16% of health plans are covered by the state surprise billing law.)

The problems with the second option become obvious quickly: If insurance companies are setting rates, they have all the negotiating leverage. Surprise bills go from being a dispute over how much to charge for a medical procedure to a take-it-or-leave it edict to hospitals, doctors, and other care providers. The rate-setting option would artificially drive insurance payouts down and create dire financial situations for doctors and hospitals – particularly in rural areas, where hospitals function as major hubs for local health care services. It would pad the bottom line for health insurance companies, though – not like they need it, since they have been among the few companies making more money during the pandemic.

Worst of all: Rate-setting would allow insurance companies to further enrich themselves on the backs of the doctors, nurses, and other health care providers who have been serving on the front lines of the pandemic, shouldering more risk than any of us in fighting COVID-19.

(Last month, the Trump administration proposed a third option: an outright ban on surprise medical bills with no outline for resolving the underlying dispute. That figures to throw any disputed bill into the court system, with costly lawsuits driving up the costs of both health care and insurance premiums. Everyone except the lawyers would lose in that scenario.)

Thankfully, surprise medical billing is one of the few truly bipartisan issues on Congress’s agenda, outside the drama of November’s elections. And there is bipartisan support for an IDR-based solution, which means that we can have some hope that Sen. John Cornyn, Sen. Ted Cruz, and the rest of our Congressional delegation will step up and do the right thing. And there are legislative options, put forward by members of Congress who are actual doctors: Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) has more than 30 bipartisan co-sponsors for his “STOP Surprise Medical Bills Act,” and more than 110 House members have similarly signed on to the “Protecting People from Surprise Medical Bills Act,” sponsored by Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Ca.). Both of these bills solve surprise medical bills using IDR and keep the patients out of it.

We still have a long way to go in facing COVID-19 pandemic. During this time, and the time to come after, one thing should be crystal clear: We cannot make it harder for people to get health care when they need it. Access to health care will be essential as the economy struggles to recover in fits and starts, we need workers and customers who don’t have to worry about finding care if they get sick.

Forcing doctors out of business and pushing hospitals to the brink of financial collapse is no way to fight a pandemic – or to help patients.

This is a necessary solution for millions. A generation later, I am still terrified to go see a doctor because of the uncertainty surrounding every trip. I am still affected by the bad luck I was afflicted with before I could drive a car, vote, or serve our country. A generation later, I still feel the effects of being a pawn in a game I don’t want to play. There is a real opportunity to do something about this now. All it takes is for our elected officials to do it.

Matt Glazer is the past Executive Director of Progress Texas and co-founder of Blue Sky Partners.

Precinct analysis: Beto in the city

Last week I got an email from Christopher Busby, who is a regular commenter here. He had previously asked about doing an analysis of Beto O’Rourke’s performance in Houston by City Council district. I told him that the canvass data I had did not include City Council district information, but that one could ask the County Clerk for it. He went and did exactly that, and sent me the result of his work. Here’s what he said:

The numbers as represented are ESTIMATES of the performance of the US Senate races in the City of Houston Council Districts. Many precincts are split among city and non-city portions of Harris County and though I made effort to recheck my work I still do allow that their might be some human error. Without better information as to which voters in represented precincts were city of Houston voters I am unable to give the most precise possible estimates. Regardless I feel comfortable that the below figures are within a decent ballpark of representing the districts.

Dist    Cruz    Beto  Dike  Cruz %  Beto %
A     21,716  30,773   447   41.0%   58.1%
B      5,707  42,951   245   11.7%   87.8%
C     35,622  68,794   988   33.7%   65.3%
D     10,370  55,702   352   15.6%   83.9%
E     37,769  30,564   584   54.8%   44.3%
F     12,501  27,958   284   30.7%   68.6%
G     42,720  42,137   698   49.9%   49.2%
H      7,618  29,290   286   20.5%   78.7%
I      7,373  27,002   202   21.3%   78.1%
J      5,711  15,298   159   27.0%   72.3%
K      9,082  35,144   283   20.4%   79.0%

Tot  196,189 378,611 4,528   33.9%   65.4%

I have a couple of things to add here. First, again, the work above was done by Christopher Busby, and I am using it with his permission. Second, do take heed of what he says about these numbers being estimates. I know from experience that it’s not easy to tease out city numbers from county canvasses, precisely for the reason given. There are just a lot of split precincts, for reasons that are not totally clear to me. You can’t do the usual method of identifying all the precincts in a given district and then adding up the votes in them for whatever other race you want to compare, because there are precincts in city districts that have far fewer votes than the precinct as a whole.

I did basically what Christopher did for the 2008 election. I had citywide data as part of the 2012 election thanks to the bond referenda, but didn’t have Council data so I did an aggregate summary. Note that 2008 was with the old Council map, so the districts there are not directly comparable. By my earlier calculations, Adrian Garcia in 2008 is still the reigning champion of Houston, just edging out Beto with 65.6% of the vote. Truthfully, the two are basically tied, since we’re doing our best guesses of fuzzy data. But that’s the ballpark Beto is in.

As for the results in 2018, don’t be too mesmerized by any individual district for the simple reason that turnout in 2018 is likely to be between double and triple what we should expect for 2019, and this is one of those times where the missing voters will be heavily Democratic. District A is open and I’m sure we’ll have a good Dem or two running in it, and I’d love to see a more moderate person take on Greg Travis in District G, while District C may now be legitimately a Dem district – remember, though, Bill King carried it in November and December of 2015 – and District F has a lot of potential if someone can put together a decent ground game. Point being, and this is something Greg Wythe says at every opportunity, the partisan lean of City Council districts depends very much on the turnout context. In the context we usually get, they’re a lot less Democratic than they could be. (Even in this election, note the extreme disparity in turnout between C and J.) This is very much an opportunity, but one of the lessons we should take from 2018 is that this is hard work, and can take a set of circumstances we’re not used to seeing. If you’re looking to make a difference in 2019, look at data from past city elections before you draw any conclusions about what it possible and what is probable in 2019.

Abby Whitmire: Why I’m running for Humble ISD Board of Trustees

(Note: As you know, I solicit guest posts from time to time. I am also working to follow the May 2017 elections more closely, to do my part for the renewed sense of purpose and desire to make a difference at the local level. I was delighted to learn that a friend of mine had taken that to the next level, so in that spirit I asked her to write about her candidacy.)

Abby Whitmire

Humble ISD covers over 90 square miles of northeast Harris County, including the communities of Humble, Atascocita, Kingwood, Fall Creek, and Eagle Springs. The population in the district is expected to rise from 40,500 to approximately 52,000 by 2025 – necessitating the construction of six new schools by 2022, including one high school, the seventh for the district. The district is 19.1% African American, 34.1% Latino, 40.9% White, and 5.9% Other. Almost nine percent of Humble ISD are Limited English Proficient and almost 34% are considered economically disadvantaged.

In the summer of 2016, the school board hired a controversial superintendent who had helped implement a private school voucher program in her previous job. The hiring of Dr. Liz Fagen as Superintendent was done over the very vocal objections of a large segment of the district. Many people in the district are still upset about that, and upset about how the board handled her hiring and how they tried to explain it to the public. A group of parents organized against this hire, and while we were ultimately unsuccessful in that objective, we have continued to serve in the role of watchdog for board and general district matters.

Part of this organizing includes supporting challengers to the six trustees who voted in the current superintendent (the seventh member was absent). Four positions are open in this election (one board member is not running for reelection so there is not an incumbent in that race). The day before the filing deadline, the incumbent in Position 4 was unopposed. I decided to run for Position 4 that day, because I believe the voters in Humble ISD deserve a real choice in who represents them.

I was blessed with amazing teachers who were committed and creative, and who cared so deeply about me and my classmates. I believe all children in Texas deserve a great, well-resourced school with respected and empowered teachers, regardless of where they live or how much money their family makes. I'm hoping to earn the votes of concerned parents in the district who want to protect public education.

I am the only candidate who has lived in a town – New Orleans – that is a living laboratory for charter schools. 93% of New Orleans students attend charter schools currently, and the number could soon approach 100%, as the Orleans Parish School Board intends to convert its five remaining direct-run schools into charters. This the highest percentage of any U.S. city (Source: Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives). The results are mixed at best. Living in that environment and hearing the concerns of parents and teachers made me extremely skeptical of charter schools and so-called "school choice" – the choice was often one of bad options.

My family moved to Kingwood for the schools. I want to make sure that the caliber of education in Humble ISD remains and even exceeds the level that has made it so attractive to families like mine. We know what works in education: Small class sizes, rich curriculums, experienced and accomplished teachers, and a system of support that helps to manage problems when students lose focus or fall behind. It's simple, but it's not easy. If I am elected to the school board, these will be my priorities.

Abby Whitmire is stay at home mom with a career background in non-profit fundraising, most recently in New Orleans for The Posse Foundation. Her campaign Facebook page is here.

(Ed. note: Kingwood State Rep. Dan Huberty, who is the Chair of the House Public Education Committee and an opponent of vouchers, had previously served on the Humble ISD Board. Just wanted to put that out there.)

A look ahead to Fort Bend County elections in 2017

(Note: From time to time I solicit guest posts on various topics, from people who have a particular interest or expertise in a particular topic. I don’t know much about local and municipal elections in Fort Bend County, so today’s post is by Steve Brown.

As has been aptly reported here over the last couple of weeks, Secretary Hilary Clinton was able to carry what was once seen as dependably “red” Fort Bend County. Those of us who’ve been working to turn Fort Bend purple, if not blue, have long known that our county wasn’t as conservative as most people believed. Our demographically diverse population, young families and growing base of millennials point to a Fort Bend ready to embrace more progressive values like adequate public school funding and climate change and denounce divisive, hate driven agendas. I have confidence that local Democratic Party leaders will continue working in advance of the 2018 midterms to keep that momentum going, but there are a few local elections on May 6, 2017 that can help to cement support among persuadable suburban voters and build our bench of new leaders.

There are a number of municipalities, school districts & MUDs that will hold elections this year – like Stafford, Rosenberg, Fulshear, Lamar Consolidated ISD to name a few. However, I want to draw your attention to the Fort Bend ISD and Sugar Land races.

If there’s one thing that the 2016 election taught us, it’s that a majority of voters in Fort Bend’s Commissioner 4 precinct either embraced Clinton’s message, rejected Trump or both. These voters live in diverse, highly educated communities like Telfair, Avalon and Sweetwater. Democrats have traditionally done well in our strongholds of Missouri City (which moved its city council election to November) and Fresno. The emergence of winnable precincts in and around Sugar Land create unique electoral opportunities. Although Clinton didn’t have the coattails to boost our down ballot candidates, she did leave behind a road map for these local races.

Fort Bend ISD

Fort Bend ISD trustees are elected district-wide. This year, three school board seats are up – one for a trustee who lives on the east side of the district, one from the west side and one elected at-large. Currently, there are only two minorities on Fort Bend ISD’s Board, and one of them, K.P. George, is up for re-election in May. It would be ideal to add at least one more progressive and/or minority to a Board that governs a district representing one of the most diverse student populations in the country.

Sugar Land City Council

Similarly, a progressive candidate in one of Sugar Land’s 4 district races could help to reshape that governing body as well. Clinton won about half of the precincts in Sugar Land and came extremely close in a handful of others to arguably make Sugar Land a “toss-up” municipality. Sugar Land’s four district council members will be up for re-election in May. Sugar Land recently annexed two master-planned communities so it may be too early to predict how that might impact electoral outcomes there. Nevertheless, good candidates should definitely consider running this Spring, and possibly win office with as few as 3500 votes.

2018 Midterms

As we look forward to the 2018 mid-term elections, having solid candidates to engage persuadable voters in the parts of Sugar Land and Fort Bend ISD that overlap with Commissioner’s Precinct 4 will help lay the groundwork to win that commissioner’s precinct in 2018. A prospective nominee for that office could be buoyed by the support of a newly minted school board trustee and Sugar Land city council member- not to mention access to their voter base and donors. With the right collaboration and coordination it’s plausible that GOTV in Precincts 2 and 4 (which would both be on the ballot in 2018) could help to elect Democrats countywide – including County Judge, District Attorney and various judicial benches. A competitive commissioner’s 4 race could also have a positive effect on the HD 26 race in 2018 and 2020.

Democrats can’t win the state if we can’t win suburbs – especially the diverse ones. Fort Bend has been on the cusp of political change for some time now. We can finally reach that tipping point by taking seriously these low hanging local elections. All elections matter.

Steve Brown is a former Chair of the Fort Bend County Democratic Party and Managing Director at Capitol Assets Sustainable Energy Development LLC.

Steve Brown: Why we need the US90A rail line

(Note: From time to time I solicit guest posts on various topics, from people who have a particular interest or expertise in a particular topic. Today’s post is by Steve Brown, on the newly revived US90A commuter rail line.)

Steve Brown

Steve Brown

In May 2015, Metro began operating two light rail lines serving the East End and Southeast communities. Those routes, along with an extension of the Main St. line, were part of the 2003 Metro Solutions referendum. Included in that referendum was also a nine mile commuter line connecting Southwest Houston to Missouri City along Main/90A. Despite its bi-partisan support, that route has yet to break ground…or even clear its final environmental stage.

When the METRO Solutions referendum squeaked out a victory with 51.7% of the vote, it was the votes from Fort Bend that pushed it into the winner’s column. The METRO Solutions referendum received 66% of the Fort Bend County vote. That shouldn’t be a surprise. According to the most recent Kinder Houston Area Survey (2016), Fort Bend residents beat out Harris and Montgomery County in favoring more spending for rail and buses. That study also found that a majority of Fort Bend residents believe that the development of a much improved mass transit system is “very important.”

Fort Bend County is one of the fastest growing counties in the nation, and is projected to increase by 60 percent by 2035. According to METRO, 24,000 daily work trips are made along the 90A corridor between Fort Bend and the Texas Medical Center. That number is expected to jump to 32,000 by 2035. The Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) also estimates that trips along US 90A to all major employment centers, such as downtown Houston, Uptown/Galleria, and Greenway Plaza in Houston will increase approximately 37 percent in that same time period. That’s why I was overjoyed to hear that METRO’s Board recently voted to submit this project to FTA for project development. The project development phase is a preliminary stage, so it doesn’t guarantee full funding.

What’s needed now is a robust strategy for the next legislative session to advocate for state funding for the 90A line, and the creation of a special district to spearhead this effort.

Under the state’s Transportation Code, the legislature can create special “Commuter Rail Districts” (CRD). These Districts have the statutory power to develop, construct, own, and operate commuter rail facilities and connect political subdivisions in the district. The Fort Bend CRD, for instance, could accept grants and loans from the federal and state government. It could also issue revenue bonds and impose taxes. This district would function as the project leader and fiscal agent in partnering with METRO, local municipalities, private investors, Fort Bend Express and other key stakeholders.

A lot has changed along Main/90A since 2003. The 90A line should definitely stop in Missouri City but it shouldn’t end there. Constellation Field in Sugar Land has become a major local attraction, and the Imperial Market development will break ground later this year. Combined, they will be a hub for Sugar Land’s retail, entertainment, residential and office growth. As such, having the 90A commuter line terminate at Imperial Market (or even the Sugar Land airport) makes a lot of sense…assuming they’re willing to coordinate with the CRD.

Additionally, Missouri City’s residential growth and development has steadily drifted towards SH6 in recent years. In addition to the 90A route, we should also examine the feasibility of having a Hillcroft spur with stops around the Fountain of Praise/Fountain Life Center, Chasewood/Briargate and traveling adjacent to the Fort Bend Tollway before terminating on SH6. Not only would that route help to spark needed economic development in key East Fort Bend communities, it would also serve commuters from Fresno, Sienna Plantation and Riverstone. This “Hillcroft Spur” could function as a Bus Rapid Transit alternative to rail, at least initially, and potentially replace the 2 METRO Park and Rides in Fort Bend.

Finally, the state legislature needs invest in urban and suburban transit. We’re not going to be able to adequately address traffic congestion in this state with more toll roads. According to the American Public Transit Association, commuter rail annually yields $5.2 billion in economic and societal benefits. Those benefits are often greater than the initial investment and include cost savings from avoided congestion, mitigation of traffic accidents and tax revenue generated. These projects are also dynamic job creators and economic development incubators.

It’s time that we get the right people at the table to brainstorm innovative mobility solutions in Fort Bend, and finally make the METRO 90A/Southwest Houston commuter line a reality.

Steve Brown is a former Chair of the Fort Bend County Democratic Party and a past Director of Government Affairs for Metro.

Dan Wallach: The case for not letting everybody vote by mail

You know who Dan Wallach is by now. Voting systems and security are in his wheelhouse, and when he sent this to me in response to this, I was happy to queue it up.


Vote by mail (VBM) is cheaper! It’s more enfranchising! Take your time and do it right! Yes, indeed, and why not even do it over the Internet! Sigh. But what proponents of VBM seem to miss in these arguments in that voting is not the same as doing your taxes. It’s not the same as buying stuff from Amazon. Why? Because voting fraud happens. Voting fraud has a long history. You name the voting technology, and there are people who try to use it to influence the outcome of elections.

Let’s take a trip in the Wayback Machine to the time before the modern “Australian” secret ballot. Voters would get colorfully printed “party slates”, often from their partisan newspapers, and would take them to the polls to deposit in the ballot box. (Check out the pretty pictures!) Why did we switch to having the state doing the printing and having voters fill those ballots out in a private booth? To eliminate bribery and coercion! This transition was even connected with the women’s suffrage movement, since the women at the time were apparently less interested than the manly men in putting up with a partisan gauntlet between the street and the ballot box. (See this NPR interview with Jill Lepore for lots of fun details.)

Okay, so secret ballots are a good thing, but they only work when the voter cannot prove how they voted, even if they want to. That’s why you’re not supposed to have your smartphone out when you’re voting, because you can make a video of your whole interaction with the machine. That’s why you vote alone, without assistance, because your “assistant” could then monitor your every move. Yes, “assisting” voters is a prominent mode of voter fraud, especially for the elderly. (See this article about the history of voter fraud in Chicago for some details.) That articled also gets into my problem with absentee / VBM balloting:

Joe Novak, a longtime Chicago political operative who knew the intimate details of the election system, explained in 2002 that election fraud still worked the way it had for years. “Precinct captains still like to control the vote by pushing absentees.” The captain goes to a retirement center or other places where the elderly gather and gets a signed statement from a voter that they can’t make it to the polls on Election Day. The captain can tell the voter how to vote. The idea is “Captains like to be ranked No. 1” in their ward organization. Alderman Joseph Moore from the Forty-Ninth Ward added, “The captain will offer to take (a completed absentee ballot) downtown for you.”  “Until they tightened the rules a few years ago,” Moore said, “it was common to see captains bringing in buckets full of ballots.”

A similar instructive example is the election of “Landslide” Lyndon B Johnson for the U.S. Senate in 1948 (background article, academic discussion). Texas, at the time, was largely controlled by the Democratic Party, so the Democratic Primary election was to be decisive for who would win the Senate seat, much like the Republican Primary is today. The 1948 primary went to a runoff between Johnson and former Texas Governor Coke Stevenson, Johnson defeated Stevenson by an “87-vote landslide.” Much attention has focused on ballot stuffing in Jim Wells County’s infamous “Box 13,” but ballot box stuffing, among other fraudulent behavior, was apparently the norm across the state. Counties were allowed to report “revisions” to their tallies in the week following the election, allowing local party bosses to continuously adjust their vote totals to assist their preferred candidate.

Let’s get back to VBM. Yes, it’s absolutely easier to defraud an election where voters are using VBM. In Texas today, if you want to vote absentee, you must either be over 65, or have one of a small set of valid reasons. If we expanded this to the general population, would we have more voter fraud? Without a doubt. Sure, VBM proponents like to talk about the extent to which they verify signatures on envelopes, but they cannot possibly hope to combat elderly vote fraud, never mind undo family influence. VBM fundamentally enables fraud.

Okay, but what about those electronic voting machines? They certainly have their own serious problems. Here’s a 93 page report I co-authored as part of California’s 2007 “Top to Bottom Report” on the Hart InterCivic eSlate. Our conclusion then was that there were unacceptable security flaws in the design of the eSlate and every other voting system we analyzed. So far as I can tell, Hart InterCivic hasn’t meaningfully changed anything since then. We’re still voting on the same poorly engineered machines here in Harris County today. But are these weaknesses being actively exploited? I don’t know, and neither does anybody else.

What would I recommend to replace our aging and breaking voting systems? I was invited by Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir and her team to help design something new, from scratch, that might better meet the needs of Travis County and others. Our design, called STAR-Vote (secure, transparent, auditable, reliable), uses state of the art cryptographic and statistical auditing techniques that can help voters prove their votes were counted correctly or prove they were defrauded (yet not be able to prove to a third party how they voted). STAR has printed paper ballots, so tampered software can’t mess with the final tallies without detection. And STAR is designed to use off-the-shelf commodity computer hardware rather than the overpriced proprietary devices being sold by the voting systems industry. Where does STAR stand today? We’ve got a great design. We have prototype implementations here at Rice, today, where we’re running usability tests. Ultimately, we need to get the funding together to professionally build and maintain the software, and that’s as much a political challenge as anything technical. Once the software’s done, the incremental cost of rolling out new hardware would be something like a third of the cost of what the voting machine industry wants to charge, and we haven’t even begun to talk about the ongoing service contract savings. (The exact business model for STAR is very much dependent on its funding situation. Legally, any company could take our design, implement it, and sell it, yet none have; sadly, some voting system vendors have inappropriately adopted similar technical lingo while shipping products without any of the desirable security properties.)

Yeah, but what about voter turnout? If your goal is to increase voter turnout, then there are plenty of ways to make that happen. 22 countries make voting mandatory. If you want something a little less draconian, might I suggest an “open primary” as California has done? That would better enfranchise “independent” voters who don’t want to be forced to vote in one party or the other’s primary. Or how about compact districts, so we can have more competitive races? Want something less disruptive? Okay, how about Election Day vote centers? In Travis County today, you can go to any polling place in the county, on Election Day, and you get to vote on your particular ballot. Want to vote near your work? No problem. Travis County adopted this to work around a nightmarish redistricting that would have otherwise resulted in large numbers of voters going to the wrong polling places, but you can see how it could add convenience for everybody.

My colleague, Bob Stein, likes to quip that all voters have one thing in common: they know who they want to vote for. If you want to increase turnout, I’m all for it, but if that’s truly the goal, then let’s not weaken our protections against voting fraud.

Dan Wallach: 2016 Electric Power Usage Update

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here. In this particular case, I’m welcoming back someone who has written on this particular topic before.

We’ve now had a solar system on our house, and an electric car charging from the house, for just over a year. Also of note, in my post last May, I suggested that what we need is a retail electric plan that sells to you at a competitive rate (versus the inflated prices at Green Mountain) and buys from you at the wholesale price (which can climb impressively high on hot summer afternoons, when your solar system is cranking out the juice). Well, plans like this are starting to appear on the market. MP2 Energy has such a plan and others are looking into it.

Today, I want to discuss a few related questions:

  • How much electricity did our solar system generate, and our electric car consume, in the past year?
  • Based on our year of data, would we do any better to stick with Green Mountain or go to one of the newer plans?

Of course, I’m only writing about our own usage, with our house and our car. Your house and your car and your, umm, mileage will vary, but you might be able to extrapolate from our numbers to reach your own conclusions about whether you want to go solar.

How much electricity did our solar system generate?

Below is a graph of the energy-per-day produced by our solar array. You can see the system generating more energy in the summer months, with the correspondingly longer days. You can also see the occasional days with bad weather. No sun = no power.

Dan Wallach 2016 chart

In total, over this twelve month period, our solar array (36 panels, 250W peak production per panel) produced 10.3 MWh of electricity. At the $0.12/kWh buyback rate we’re getting with Green Mountain Energy, that means that our solar array saved us roughly $1240 this year. (Our panels are facing east and west, as a result of the way our roof is built. If your house has a large southern-facing roof, you could get this much power from fewer panels.)

How much juice did our Tesla consume?

According to the Tesla’s dashboard measurements, after a year of owning it, we’ve driven a total of 7033 miles, and used 2476 kWh to do it. That’s 352 Wh/mile. Assuming you were paying $0.10/kWh for your electricity, then we’re talking about 3.5 cents/mile. Contrast that with a comparably large sedan with comparable performance (e.g., an Audi A7), doing the same sort of city driving and thus getting something crappy like 15 miles/gallon, then with current $2/gallon prices, you’re looking at 13.3 cents/mile. You’d have to have some kind of amazing 57mpg  hybrid to achieve the same cost per mile. (A Prius is almost there. Big luxury cars, not so much.)

Another way to think about it: the “long tailpipe” problem. Some critics of electric cars note that they still burn fossil fuels, just somewhere far away from home. Our solar array produced enough energy to run our Tesla for nearly 30,000 miles. So if you want to have a “solar powered electric car”, you can do it with even a modest-sized solar system.

What if you drive a longer commute? The prior owner of our Tesla lived up in the Woodlands and commuted back and forth to Houston. He was averaging an even more amazing 300 Wh/mile, driving twice as many miles per year in the same exact car. He upgraded to a Tesla P85D (the four-wheel-drive version that goes insanely faster) and his mileage stayed roughly the same. Supercar performance, tiny hybrid efficiency.

All that said, I don’t have a really good handle on the overhead of the Tesla. Sure, it consumed 2476 kWh in the past year, but that’s going from the car’s battery to the tires. There’s some fractional overhead beyond that, going from the wall outlet to the car’s battery. Charging a battery creates heat, which represents wasted electricity, and also requires additional energy to remove. The Tesla will thus use extra power to run the A/C compressor while it’s charging. For now, let’s just say that measuring the charging overhead is future work. (Hey OffTheKuff readers: if you’ve got measurement infrastructure that I could borrow for this, let me know!)

Lastly, I’ll note that we did several road trips in the Tesla, using their Supercharger infrastructure. I’d estimate that somewhere around 500 kWh of that energy was “free” from the Supercharger network (i.e., included in the cost of buying the car).

Should we stick with Green Mountain or switch elsewhere?

Green Mountain has the best net metering plan on the market, but there are only two competitors. In a nutshell, Green Mountain buys and sells power from you at the exact same price: $0.12/kWh, inclusive of all fees and taxes. But there are plenty of standard retail plans that will sell you electricity at $0.08 or $0.09/kWh. Can we do better than Green Mountain’s net metering plan? The real issue, once you strip away all the dumb politics, is that the underlying pricing model isn’t at all a flat rate for electricity.

Roughly speaking, there’s a wholesale price for the electricity coming from a commercial generator and then there’s a distribution price to get it to you. Wholesale prices vary all day long, with overnight lows below a penny and mid-afternoon highs as much as 3 cents/kWh, with occasional peaks that are much, much higher. CenterPoint charges 3.8 cents/kWh for delivery of that power, no matter what, alongside a flat monthly charge of $5.47 per residential customer. All those charges are often rolled into the pricing plans you see from other retail electricity providers, who are essentially gambling that they can buy power at variable wholesale rates and sell it to you at a flat retail price while still somehow making a profit.

When a retail electricity provider wants to get into the solar buyback game, their actual costs to get power downstream to your house (so far as I can tell) are the wholesale price plus the distribution price. Your excess solar power production is worth the same to them as the spot wholesale price when it flows back upstream. CenterPoint doesn’t give any sort of rebate for upstream electricity flows. CenterPoint’s argument: Somebody else is receiving the power you’re sending upstream, and they’re paying to get it delivered. CenterPoint charges for that delivery.

Can a retail electricity provider offer a competitive pricing plan that’s closer to the wholesale market structure while still buffering consumers from the sometimes insane spikes of the raw wholesale market? One such provider, who prefers not to be named yet in public, approached me privately and offered me the chance to test drive a new plan they’re working on. Their proposal is to pass through all the CenterPoint charges, as is, and then have a flat 3 cents/kWh for buying and selling power, downstream or upstream. I ran these numbers through my spreadsheet for the same 12 months of data I’ve already captured. Here’s what came out: Green Mountain’s $0.12/kWh net metering plan cost us $692.84 for the year. If we had this new plan instead, it would come out to $712.07 for the same usage in the same year.

Evaluating MP2’s spot-price “solar buyback” plan is a bit more complicated, because the upstream price they pay you varies all day long. Conveniently, MP2 did this analysis for me. I emailed them all our data and their conclusion was that our annual bill would be $904.32, so not especially competitive with Green Mountain’s net metering. MP2 also offers a net metering plan, similar to Green Mountain’s plan, but it’s presently offered as part of getting your solar system installed through SolarCity. Thus, not an option for us.

Call me modestly bullish on this. Even though MP2’s solar buyback plan isn’t a good deal for our house, other firms are looking to offer variants on the same business model that are competitive. As an added bonus, I’d now be incentivized to put a big battery on our house to capture the excess daily production and reuse it at night. With standard net-metering, there was no incentive, but now I’d save those distribution charges. I’ll still wait for the cost of battery packs to drop, but it’s fun to think about.

Some Thoughts About the Future

There are always going to be a few days in the summer where the demand on the grid peaks out. In those cases, all the market-rate adjustments in the world won’t cause a new industrial generator to be constructed and placed online. That means high prices and brownouts. (If anything, there’s a reasonable fear that generators might deliberately go off-line to force price spikes. That’s beyond the scope of today’s post.)

Solar has a big role to play in stabilizing our grid, because those hottest hours of the day are exactly when solar panels will be generating the most power. Solar also happens to do the job without pollution, and without incurring large infrastructure costs for long-distance power distribution. On top of that, solar’s one-time purchase and installation costs are rapidly shrinking.

Consequently, it’s sensible and desirable for the Federal government to continue its solar subsidy, and it would make a lot of sense for the Texas state government to get in on the game as well. The solar on our roof helps our neighbors, not just us. I’m not suggesting that we’ll stop burning fossil fuels, but rather that a diversified set of sources is a desirable way to meet the needs for a stable and scalable power grid.

The biggest objection to solar, so far as I can tell, comes from shills who misrepresent the financial structure of the electricity markets and claim that residential solar production leads to “mooching” off the grid. What I like about MP2 and some of the other buyback plans coming online is that they address this concern head-on. By passing through the monthly CenterPoint connection charge and pricing power consumption somewhere only marginally higher than wholesale rates, these new plans make it clear that solar systems aren’t mooching at all. They’re paying their fair share, and they’re improving the reliability of the grid while they’re at it.

Dan Wallach: 2015 Electric Power Usage Update

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here. In this particular case, I’m welcoming back someone who has written on this particular topic before.

I’ve been blogging about our electricity situation for the past few years here at OffTheKuff. In 2014, I mentioned that we were pondering going with a solar system. Well, we did it — a 9 kW (peak) solar system via Texas Solar Outfitters — and we also picked up a Tesla Model S. This is less about being green hippie freaks and more about disconnecting from what I’ve viewed as a deeply dysfunctional electricity market. (And also having a car that kicks ass, but that’s for another day and a different blog.)

We’ve only had the solar system since November, so it’s too soon to have full-year statistics. Once the system reaches its first full year anniversary, I’ll run the “profitability” numbers and do another guest post here. Stay tuned for more exciting charts and financial math (present value, IRR, and more)! Instead, I wanted to give some perspective on the economics of solar power.

Notably, Tesla just announced a new “PowerWall” contraption that puts a 10kWh battery pack on your garage wall for $3500 (plus hiring an electrician, plus permitting, plus ancillary equipment like inverters, so let’s call it $6000 minimum). Elon Musk envisions that we can truly replace our entirely fossil fuel-based economy with solar power: homes, cars, everything. (For more technical details on the PowerWall products, Teslarati has a good writeup.) Let’s do the numbers, shall we?

To begin, here’s our March electrical bill from Green Mountain — the best of the three available plans if you have solar.


This is what “net metering” looks like. We drew 862kWh from the grid and fed back 573kWh. Meanwhile, over the same time period, our solar system reports that it produced 853kWh. Of this, the house consumed 280kWh and we sold back the remaining 573kWh. So, our actual power consumption for March was 1142kWh (solar generation plus grid consumption, minus excesses solar generation sold back).

I rolled back to last year’s stats, when we had neither solar nor a Tesla, and the monthly usage for the same time period was 864kWh, which says that the Tesla used around 280kWh for the month, or maybe it’s just hotter this year. Last year’s awful summer peaks were well north of 1500kWh, so presumably this summer, with the Tesla, we’re looking at 1800-2000kWh / month of peak usage.

(With our Tesla, we’re on target to hit about 7500 miles/year, so these numbers may represent a “low” usage point relative to others, but you can easily scale our numbers up if you want to predict your own hypothetical costs. Your mileage and the weather may vary, etc.)

Here’s where solar gets fun. The graph below shows the energy generated by our solar system on a beautiful, sunny April day. Positive numbers represent power we’re drawing from the grid. Negative numbers represent excess power we’re selling back to the grid. You can see our Tesla charging itself up after we got home from eating dinner out. You can also nicely see when the sun came up and when it went down again. On this particular day, midnight to midnight, we drew 20kWh from the grid while the sun was down. The solar system generated 52kWh, and we had an excess of 44kWh that we sold back to the grid (i.e., we consumed a total of 28kWh on this particular day and were a net seller of electricity). Sounds great right?


The new Tesla PowerWall contraption leads you to ask the question of whether you could store all that extra energy in a battery during the day and release it at night. If you could do that, you could then cut yourself free from the grid. Today’s question: what would it take to go completely “off grid”?

To pull this off, you need to generate everything you might ever need, even in the worst case. So how bad is bad? Here’s a chart of our power usage over a two day period in early April when it was rainy and awful.


Over these two days, our total power drawn from the grid was 46kWh. The solar system generated 25.2kWh, of which 9kWh was sold back to the grid (i.e., we consumed an average of 31kWh/day on these two days). To make this work “off grid”, we’d need to double the size of our solar system. To make this work on a bad weather winter day, with correspondingly less daylight, the solar system would need to grow yet again. Also, this included a typical day of driving with our Tesla. What if we did a long drive and got home with a near-empty battery? You’d have a whole new form of range anxiety to deal with. Conversely, on days when you generate more than you use you’re just throwing it away.

Our current solar system cost us roughly $30k to purchase and install (before the 30% tax credit, which might go down in future years). No matter how you slice it, the profitability of the system is dubious, given how much cheaper electricity became after the Saudis decided to crank up their production. Doubling the solar system, installing expensive batteries, going off-grid, and discarding excess production? Sorry, that’s not financially rational.

Incidentally, if you want to know how to size up a Tesla PowerWall system for an off-grid solar application, you pretty much just add up your grid consumption during the night; you need to ensure you have enough solar capacity and battery capacity during the day to cover it. For our house, two PowerWall batteries ($3500/ea, for 20kWh total storage capacity) wouldn’t quite do the job. We’d need three of them to have a decent margin. If you had a bigger house or you drove many more miles on your electric car, then you’d have to ratchet everything up appropriately.

Conclusion 1: building a solar system to deal with worst-case power generation, operating your house “off grid”, will require your solar system to be much larger than you’d specify for a net-metering application, where you can rely on the grid for bad-weather days. As solar panels get more powerful and cheaper, the economics of this will change. Today, no. Ten years, maybe.

Next question for today: is there any point in buying a PowerWall if not to go off-grid? If what you want is “emergency” service in a power-outage situation, you can buy all sorts of natural gas generators. They’re loud when running and they require regular service, but after Hurricane Ike knocked our power out for ten days, we could feel the soulful allure. Unfortunately, a smaller PowerWall system wouldn’t help here, since for a ten day blackout, you’re really in a situation equivalent to the fully off-grid scenario.

Sadly, with only flat-rate grid electricity pricing available here, I conclude that a PowerWall has no real use at our home.

Caveat 1: so long as TXU is willing to give you “free nights”, then a PowerWall means free electricity for your home! You can expect TXU to kill that program off quickly once Tesla’s battery packs start shipping. Sorry about that.

Caveat 2: electric utilities are cranking up the scare machine that it’s “unfair” for solar consumers to pay less for the grid. First off, this is totally bogus, as we pay the same fixed fee as everybody else pays for CenterPoint to maintain the grid. (Many retail electric plans hide this fee, so long as you use more than 1000kWh, but they’re still paying it on your behalf. ) And if you’re a net provider rather than net consumer of power at peak times, you’re helping the grid. But let’s say the utilities win the argument and kill off or weaken solar net metering. At that point, we’re forced to buy a battery storage system to recapture our excess daytime usage. The grid then loses the benefit of our excess generation, and every new solar system just got more expensive for no good reason.

All of this would change if consumers were more exposed to the variable pricing of the commercial power market. Rice University, for example, buys its electricity a full year ahead of time, hour by hour, offset by in-house solar production. If it turns out that Rice pre-bought more than they need, they sell it back on the spot market. If they need more than they pre-bought, they have to go buy power on that same spot market. And, of course, when do they really need it? The same time as everybody else does, on the hottest days, so spot prices can be brutal. With this in mind, typical commercial flat rooftop solar installations point their panels southwest, maximizing their power generation in the afternoon when electricity is most expensive.

The real genius of power storage systems is that you can buy and store the power when it’s cheap and uses it when it’s expensive. Energy arbitrage! That means that the mammoth version of Tesla’s PowerWall might be very attractive for industrial and commercial users. Even utilities might deploy them into neighborhoods. And if home users were more exposed to the “real” pricing in the commercial market, they too would be incentivized to get personal battery storage systems, with or without solar, for the same reasons. So far as I can tell, none of the available-in-Houston 325 plans from the 52 different retail electric providers offer hour-by-hour variable pricing like this, but in Austin or San Antonio, your traditional electric utility might be able to do it. Here’s a nice NPR article with useful details.

Conclusion 2: so long as consumers have net metering available and are not exposed to variable time-of-day electricity pricing, they won’t be incentivized to buy a battery storage system, with or without a solar system on the roof. There’s really no benefit for Houston consumers today to buy a storage system.

Teslarati runs a similar analysis in a state with variable pricing. In Southern California, the PowerWall becomes profitable in 3-5 years, and is unattractive for off-grid. Also, Vermont’s Green Mountain Power, not to be confused with our NRG-owned Green Mountain Energy, is ramping up some kind of joint program with Tesla. Who knows, maybe we’ll see something like it here some day.

One parting thought: in the insane, fragmented universe of the deregulated Texas electricity market, where generation, distribution, and retail sales are performed by unrelated players, we’ll probably be stuck with pricing policies that incentivize consumers to waste energy for make benefit most glorious State of Texas. Of course, exposing consumers to the raw industrial electricity market would likely be disastrous. Consumers can’t easily manage their load or trade contracts against future use. The best we seem to get are “smart” thermostats that can throttle back at peak times. Yawn. What seems missing, then, is better regulations for how consumer pricing is structured to incentivize lower peak usage. My proposed solution? Net metering and predictable time-variable pricing should be a standard part of any retail electricity offering. Let me sell high and buy low! Similarly, every plan should be structured to eliminate perverse rate structures where marginal rates go down as usage goes up. That’s common sense. Deregulation!

Dan Wallach is a professor of computer science at Rice and a friend of mine who has written four of these analyses before.

Kris Banks: Comparing turnout, or where the vote was lost

(Note: This is the first of two guest posts submitted by Kris Banks, past President of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus.)

Democrats lost big last month. We lost at every level, from statewide all the way down to the countywide candidates. Every challenger and every incumbent lost.

That first paragraph kind of defies the rules of journalism, I guess. You’re supposed to lead with the news. Not only does everyone know what I said above, but it’s not exactly a new experience for Harris County Democrats. We’ve lost all countywide races in nearly every single election since the 1990s. The only exceptions have been 2008 and 2012.

I lead with it because it was a fact that didn’t quite square with what I saw in my precinct when I looked at the canvass. I’m Democratic chair of Precinct 60, a square section in the southwest side of Montrose between Westheimer, Richmond, Mandell and Shepherd that votes at Sydney Lanier Middle School.

It’s a solid blue precinct, and this election was no different. Wendy Davis pulled in 67 percent of the vote. Every Democrat won Precinct 60, and nearly every Republican lost – with the exception of Ed Emmett, every Republican not contested by a Democrat was defeated by the Green Party candidate in Precinct 60.

None of that was unusual. What struck me was how many votes the Democrats were getting. I knew turnout would be down from 2012. I was hit with a pang of disappointment that it was also down from 2010. In 2010, 47.2 percent of registered voters in Precinct 60 cast their ballot. In 2014, that dropped to 43.2 percent. With all the excitement I was seeing in my community for Wendy Davis and the Democratic ticket, how did we lose turnout?

Then I started looking at the numbers, and I started comparing them to my 2010 canvass. The 2014 numbers looked bigger. In 2010, the average Democrat (I’ll explain the “average Democrat” concept shortly) pulled down 671 votes. In 2014, the average Democrat won 722 votes.

So how did turnout go down? Well, I took a look at the other side. In 2010, the average Republican picked up 328 votes in Precinct 60. In 2014? 257.

Democrats didn’t drop off in my precinct. They turned out stronger than the last midterm. All of the dropoff in turnout in Precinct 60 came from Republicans.

I wish I could say it’s because I’m a particularly good precinct chair. And, you know, maybe I am. But I could see the same thing happening around Montrose. So why didn’t we win countywide? We must have lost somewhere else, and big. Where?

I’ve long loved the maps that I see Greg Wythe and others put out, and wanted to be able to make them myself. So I headed down to the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector’s Office, picked up a shape file, and determined I was going to teach myself how to make elections maps to answer these questions.

And here they are.

First, I wasn’t all that interested in Wendy Davis or anyone else statewide. No statewide candidate will ever win a statewide election in Texas until Harris County Democrats start winning midterms. So I needed to look at one number to figure out how Republicans did across the county. But I didn’t want to look at one race, because different dynamics might create skewed figures – for example, a candidate with a Hispanic surname might do unusually well in a majority Latino precinct.

So I took every Democrat running countywide, including the statewide, and made an average of their votes. Republicans were a little more difficult. Some of their numbers were much higher than other Republicans because they had no major party opposition. So to create the average Republican candidate, I took every countywide GOP candidate who was opposed by a Democrat.

The average Democrat got 298,145 votes in Harris County. The average Republican got 356,700.

The standard map you see has precincts colored red or blue as they were won, respectively, by Republicans and Democrats. The colors are shaded according to the margin of victory – dark red precincts are where the Republican picked up more than 70 percent of the vote, and pink ones are where the Republican won by just a hair.

Here’s that map for the average Democrat vs. the average Republican in Harris County in 2014:

Bam, and you now know nothing you didn’t know before. Democrats won African American, Latino and urban precincts, Republicans won the west side and suburbs. Some groundbreaking political analysis there. Move over, Bob Stein.

The main reason that map doesn’t matter is because it only tells you the strength of the vote in accordance to how big of a share each candidate got. That doesn’t mean much. Let’s say I’m a Democrat who wins Precinct A with 80 percent of the vote, but loses Precinct B with 40 percent of the vote. Things are looking pretty good until you find out that 200 voters turned out in Precinct A and 2,000 voters turned out in Precinct B. I’m now losing by 280 votes.

Let’s take a look at the average Republican vs. average Democrat map again. But this time, instead of the precincts shaded by the portion of the vote the winner got, they are shaded by the margin that the winner picked up there. For instance, for Precincts A and B above: the winner of Precinct A, me, got 160 votes there, and the Republican, my opponent, got 40. The margin I got there was therefore 120 votes. Not that many, so even though I won 80 percent, it would be light blue. In Precinct B, my opponent picked up 400 votes, so it would be a darker shade of red.

Here it is:

Democratic parts of the map are sky blue, for the most part. The darkest shade of blue only gets used four times, three in the south and once up north. Contrast that with the blood red sea in Cypress, Kingwood and Katy. Even the inside-the-Beltway Republican areas are darker than most Dem areas.

That’s how we lost 2014, by the numbers. The Republicans ran up bigger margins in precincts where they won. We won our areas like we always do. We carried some competitive precincts in the Southwest side of town. But the turnout just wasn’t there overall.

It’s important to put these maps in context. The best comparison to the 2014 election is the 2010 election. So how did we do in comparison to 2010?

Disclosure: In 2011, Harris County drew new precinct lines to fit redistricting. Most stayed the same, but 184 new precincts were created, which were carved out of old precincts. A perfect precinct-to-precinct comparison isn’t possible, therefore. What I did was figure out how the old 2010 precincts got carved up and apportion the 2010 votes according to the 2014 figures.

For example, Precinct 16 was cut into Precincts 16 and 890. In 2014, the average Democrats got 182 votes in Precinct 16 and 159 votes in Precinct 890. So, 53.4 percent of Democrats remained in Precinct 16, and the rest went to the new Precinct 890. To make the comparison, I split the 2010 vote accordingly. In 2010, the average Democrat got 314 votes in Precinct 16. So I put 53.4 percent – 168 votes – in Precinct 16 and the remainder, 146, in Precinct 890. End of disclosure; just wanted the reader to be aware that it’s not a perfect comparison.

So how did Democrats do in comparison to 2010? Here’s a map of where Democrats gained or lost a raw number of votes, with precincts where we gained colored blue (darker shades mean we gained more) and precincts where we lost votes colored red:

Not pretty. That is a rather pink map. In the vast majority of areas, especially in core Democratic areas, we lost votes. Sometimes a lot of votes. The few areas where we gained are no match for the areas where we lost.

So how did Republicans do? They won, so they must have done well, right? Here’s the flip side map for them:

Not exactly fields of crimson. In fact, the GOP map is bluer than the Democratic map is red.

Probably most interesting is the next map. It’s sort of a combo of the two. It compares the percentage of the change in votes from 2010 to 2014. In red precincts, the change was more positive for Republicans – in most cases, where the drop in Democratic votes was greater than the drop in Republican ones. Vice versa for blue precincts. The borders of the precincts are colored according to the 2014 winner of the precinct:

Big portions of this map look inverted from the first map above, especially in Republican areas. In 2010, the average Republican got 423,281 votes. That number dropped 15.7 percent in 2014. In 2010, the average Democrat got 333,021 votes. That number dropped 10.5 percent in 2014.

Republicans won all the races, but not because they did a better job. In fact, in comparison to 2010, they did worse.

But they still won, both in 2010 and 2014. If you’re trying to figure out where the Democrats truly lost, I think those numbers are important in context. But if you want to really understand it, you have to compare the numbers to a different situation – a situation where the Democrats won.

Let’s look at 2012. In 2012, the average Democrat got 568,317 votes, and the average Republican got 551,131.

It’s truly hard to compare 2012 and 2014 because of the disparities between a presidential election and a midterm election. As a diehard Democrat, I would love to be a visionary and an optimist and say that we shouldn’t throw our hands up in the air and say “A midterm election will never have the same turnout as a presidential one!,” never say never, all that B.S. The problem is that statement is true. It’s true across the country for red and blue states alike. Maybe not to the extent it’s true in Harris County, but it’s still true.

But both Republicans and Democrats dropped in every precinct. So we can compare how much they dropped. Here’s a map comparing 2012 and 2014 like the immediately one above, where the change in votes is compared. Red means Republicans had a smaller dropoff than Democrats, vice versa for blue.

There’s your crimson field.

Both Republicans and Democrats had big drop-offs. It’s just that while Republicans lost 35.3 percent of their vote, Democrats lost 47.5 percent.

Republicans didn’t do well in 2014. They actually lost more votes than the Democrats did from the prior midterm. But when no one turns anyone out, the Republicans win by default.

I’m going to look at persuadable voters and the base soon.

Dan Wallach: Home power analysis, 2014 edition

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here. In this particular case, I’m welcoming back someone who has written on this particular topic before.

It’s July and that can only mean one thing: time to worry about my electrical contract for the next year. As we saw in last year’s installment, I ended up going with TriEagle Energy’s 100% renewable product. They want to jack my rates by 10% over last year, so clearly it’s time to run the numbers again.

This year, I decided to try to sort out what each plan would cost based on my power usage data for the past year (thanks again to For five months, my usage went over 1000 kWh/month and for seven it was well below. I then downloaded the full spreadsheet of available offers from, built an equation to estimate my monthly charges, and then all I have to is sort to find the cheapest, right? Sadly, it’s not that easy. The spreadsheet data they give you is a disaster. Rather than just listing the fees, there’s now a textual column titled “Fees/Credits” and there’s no standard way in which they’re reported. Some companies report what you’d pay per kWh, inclusive of monthly fees, while others report what you pay exclusive of those fees. This meant I had to go through every row in the table and try to interpret their mumbo jumbo. Deregulation!

If you just try to just naively scale the 500 or 1000 kWh numbers, you end up with a wrong answer by 2% or more, but the EFLs often fail to give you enough data to do any better. So, with that caveat, here’s a histogram of how much money I’d spend in a year with each of the nearly 200 fixed rate electricity contracts on offer. Higher points in this histogram mean there are more plans that would end up costing me that price.


While I don’t want to name names for companies with unhelpful Electric Facts Labels and PowerToChoose-published data, I do want to give kudos specifically to Our Energy for doing it better. They say explicitly what CenterPoint expenses they are passing through, and they themselves have a flat rate on the power they’re selling. This allows me to calculate my real expenses, not a cheesy approximation of them. That would adjust them from $1316/year (as everything else in the histogram above is computed) to $1277/year, moving them into the top competitive position on my chart. Would others be cheaper as well? Probably, but PowerToChoose doesn’t give me enough information to choose. Should I reward Our Energy with my business for having the best and most transparent EFL? It’s tempting, but first, a rant…

Can’t we please go back to having a centrally regulated traditional utility company?

San Antonio still has this. I had a friend there send me a copy of her utility bill. She’s paying approximately $0.11 / kWh. Her bill breaks out the fixed and variable charges, much like I appreciate from Our Energy. On my histogram above, she’d be somewhere in the far left — getting an exceptionally good rate and not having to do this stupid analysis every year. All of our lovely free market competition in Houston is really just a series of opportunities for fools and their money to be quickly separated from one another.

Hey, what about solar power and saving the earth and stuff?

When I first started writing this year’s analysis, I said to myself, “Surely solar power must be a real option by now!” After way too much investigation, the short answer is, “maybe, if you can afford the big payment up front.” After spending the last month getting quotes and doing the research, I’m this close to pulling the trigger on a solar installation. Here are the high points:

Solar works hand-in-hand with the grid. When you install a solar system, it’s generating power during the day that you probably don’t need, and you need power at night that your solar system isn’t providing. This means your meter gets to run backwards during the day and forwards at night. If you have a month where you generated more than you used, you get a negative electric bill, which is then “banked” for future months. (Curious side-effect: you don’t want to over-size your solar system, because you’ll never get all your money back from the “bank”.) Also notable: if grid power goes down, so does your solar system. You can install a backup battery system or a gas-powered generator, but that’s a whole separate animal.

The financial incentives are okay, not great. In rough terms, the system I’m contemplating, which might generate 9-10 kW from the mid-day sun, will cost $20k after federal tax incentives. After that, you have small or even negative electric bills, and you start making money back on your initial investment. You stir in a bunch of assumptions about the depreciating value of the asset you’ve bolted to the roof, and you come out with a bottom line that you can look at with standard financial investment terms (internal rate of return, etc.). The proposal I’m considering from Texas Solar Outfitters would have an IRR of 7.4%, under their standard set of assumptions. Under different assumptions, you’re better off just getting power from the grid. (The same numbers in a place like California are in the “no brainer” category, both from additional up-front incentives and from the tiered electrical pricing they have. Solar helps keep you out of the higher tiers.)

What about leasing vs. buying, warranties, etc. In short, a lease is a lot like a loan. You’re paying less up front and you’re making monthly payments. The leasing company is trying to make money. The net effect is that the IRR goes down to the point that the deals are less likely to be worthwhile. (Again, this varies on a state by state basis. Nobody’s subsidizing those leases here.) Solar lease deals also act like an extended warranty on your gear. If your panels aren’t up to spec, they repair them for you. Most solar parts have very long warranties of their own, so this is less of a big deal than you’d think.

The environmental impact of solar is less abstract than the premium you pay for a “green” grid electricity plan. No matter what grid plan you purchase, green or not, the same mix of mostly coal and gas-fired generators are still producing the power your house is consuming. The only difference is that you’re paying your utility middleman to also buy you “renewable energy credits”, which are sold by wind farms and other such things and which may or may not be feeding their electrons to your house. It’s at best unclear whether you’re incentivizing somebody to install more “green” generation capacity versus building another traditional plant. On the flip side, when you’re turning sunlight into power, you’re directly removing your demand from the grid. This sort of logic is especially attractive if you’ve got an electric car and you’re worried about the “long tailpipe” emissions problem.

Aren’t you just a leach on the electric grid, then? Umm, no. By installing solar, you’re doing the grid a favor by supplementing its power during the peak draws in the hot summer sun. If more houses could run their meters backwards, that would effectively supplement the big generators and help avoid brownouts. Also, you’re paying the same monthly fee that everybody else pays for connecting to the grid.

So, what’s your new electricity plan then?

I need to pick a new electricity provider now, even though it might be a while before I can get a solar panel system installed on my house. The set of plans that support solar sellback is very small. So far as I can tell, I’ve got precisely three choices: Green Mountain, Reliant Energy, and TXU. The winner among these seems to be Green Mountain, who will buy your first excess 500 kWh/month from you at full retail price and half price thereafter. TXU buys from you at 7.5 cents/kWh no matter what. I can’t seem to find the Reliant number.

Green Mountain says you can sign up for any of their plans and switch without penalty to the plan that supports buying your power back from you, so that’s probably the way for me to go.

Dan Wallach is a professor of computer science at Rice and a friend of mine who has provided this annual analysis three times before.

Christof Spieler: On reimagining the bus network

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here.

At METRO, we’re proposing to redesign every bus route in Houston. We call it Reimagining, and I think that it will be one of the most important improvements in the modern history of Houston transit — alongside the park-and-ride system, the light rail lines, and the creation of METRO itself.

We started this process because our riders told us that the current bus system isn’t working well. We saw this in comments we got at public meetings, and we saw it in a 20% drop in ridership from 1999 to 2012 — a drop that occurred even as the amount of service METRO operates increased. I can say from personal experience that our riders are right. I ride the bus often; for several years, before I got a new job on the rail line, it was my daily commute. Too many of our routes are infrequent and circuitous. Too many connections are unreliable and out-of-the-way. The system as a whole is too hard to understand. Weekend and evening service is minimal.

We knew we could do better. But until we engaged a team of local and international consultants, assembled a task force of stakeholders representing the people who use the system, and worked through the process of designing a new system from scratch based on all the data we have of where people live, where people work, and where people are riding transit today, we had not idea of how much better.

It turns out that we can do a lot better.

We can make frequent service available to more people. Frequency is the most important component of high-quality transit. If a bus comes every 15 minutes, you can just show up at the stop without consulting a schedule. You don’t have to plan your life around the bus; it is there for you when you need it. Today, 534,000 people live within 1/2 mile of 7-day-a-week frequent bus service; under the reimagined system 1,126,000 do. Of our 207,000 current riders, 99,000 will see their trips upgraded from infrequent service to frequent service. Within that zone of frequent service, they have access to 998,000 jobs, to colleges and universities, to retail centers, to parks, to places of worship, and to medical care.

We can dramatically increase weekend service. If someone depends on transit, they need to get to the store on Sunday, not just to work on Monday, and the people who work at that store need to get to work on Sunday. Today, METRO operates only 40% as much local bus service on Sunday as on a weekday. 20 of METRO’s local routes don’t run at all on Sunday. In the reimagined system, every route will run seven days a week, and the bus will come as often on Sunday morning as it does at midday on a weekday. 10,000 current riders who have no Sunday service today will get it.

We can make it easier to get around a multicentric city. Today, nearly every bus route goes Downtown, but most of our riders are trying to go elsewhere. We’re forcing them to go Downtown first to transfer to go wherever they want to go. That takes them out of their way and slows them down. The reimagined system will create a grid of east-west and north-south routes, creating connections all over the city and serving major employment centers from Greenspoint to Westchase. Today, someone going from the Heights to Memorial city has to first go east to Downtown to catch a bus west. In the new system, they ride west to the Northwest Transit Center and connect there. That will reduce an 89 minute trip to 50 minutes, saving that rider 6 hours over a five day workweek.

We can make the system easier to understand and to use. METRO’s current routes are accidents of history. Some date back to old streetcar routes, tweaked over time but never rethought. The results are confusing. Shepherd, for example, is served by the 26/27 south of 20th, the 50 from 20th to Crosstimbers, the 44 from Crosstimbers to Tidwell, nothing from Tidwell to Parker, and the 66 north of Parker, (plus a few other overlapping routes.) The new system is designed to make routes as logical as possible. On Shepherd, for example, there will be one route that runs the entire length of the street. That also makes it easier to name routes in a way that describes where they actually go.

We can make trips faster. By making routes more frequent to reduce wait times and by making trips more direct with the grid, we can make trips a lot faster. The team looked at 30 locations all over the network and analyzed all possible trips between them. 58% will be at least 10 minutes faster with the new network; 28% will be at least 20 minutes faster. We can also make trips more reliable, reducing by 30% how often our buses cross freight rail lines at grade.

We can provide service tailored to neighborhoods. A grid of fixed route buses works will in areas like Southwest Houston, with high population density, well spaced and connected arterial streets, and destinations that line up along those streets. In the Northeast, though, we have lower densities, a fractured street network, and scattered destinations. Today, we serve those areas with meandering low-frequency routes. We have the budget to keep doing that, but we think we can serve these areas better with flex zones: buses that circle a neighborhood and deviate on request to where ever someone wants to get picked up or go. These connect to fixed routes at transit centers, connecting those residents into the entire network.

This plan is about making people’s everyday lives better. It will give our current riders faster, more reliable, more frequent service. It will also make transit a useful option for more people; we project it will grow ridership by 20%. It will do all this with minimal negative impacts — 93% of current riders will be able catch a bus at the same stop they do today, and 99.5% within 1/4 mile of their current stop — and within current resources. We think the reimagined network plan will also build a foundation for the future: the system structure makes it easy to extend routes, increase frequency, add more lines to the grid, and overlay express service as the region continues to grow.

Now that we’ve unveiled this draft plan, it’s time for our riders and everyone else who lives in the METRO service area to have their say. Nobody knows a neighborhood as well as the people who live or work there, so we know we’ll get some good ideas for improvements. We’re holding public meetings across the area, and setting up information tables at transit centers to get input from our riders, but the easiest way to see the plan and send us your comments is to go to

Why, people have asked me, didn’t METRO do this long ago? Because change is hard. Few cities ever undertake a blank sheet reexamination of their bus systems; they tend to focus on route expansions, and big capital projects. Few transit agency staffs are willing to let go the systems they know well, few boards are willing undertake something so complicated, and few elected officials want to take the inevitable pushback that comes with any change to a system that people depend on every day. METRO has always spent a lot on money on operating the local bus network, but in the past agency leadership never paid much attention to it. This board knows that the bus system is at the core of what we do, and once we got the agency back on a sound financial footing, we committed to making sure we run the best system we can. If you think this plan does that, we need your support to make it happen.

Christof Spieler, PE, LEED AP is a METRO board member and chair of the Strategic Planning Committee, Director of Planning at Morris Architects, and Senior Lecturer at the Rice School of Architecture. He relies on METRO for most of his daily trips.

Ed. note: See also Christof’s article in Offcite.