Lane Lewis needs to resign the Chairmanship

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The Houston Chronicle reports on a subject that has been brewing no shortage of chatter around Houston among local political types: whether or not Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Lane Lewis, who is also running for the Houston City Council, should resign the chairmanship. Upon some contemplation, my answer to that question is an emphatic yes.

Back in December, when Lewis first announced his candidacy, I was broadly supportive, given his track record as party chair. I have liked what Lewis has accomplished at the helm of the party, and was very supportive when he previously ran for the city council in 2009. In 2012, he was named Person of the Year by Texpatriate. It is my firm belief that if someone less competent than him were leading the party that election, every single Democratic incumbent would have been defeated.

All these qualities, all other things being equal, make Lewis a great candidate for the city council. But none of them justify him staying on as chair. Of course, I recognize that neither pertinent law or party rules compel Lewis to resign, but it is the right and ethical thing to do nonetheless.

Lewis was not the first candidate in this race, not by a long-shot. He was also not the first Democrat; the third, actually. Philippe Nassif and Jenifer Pool, both good progressives, would make fine councilmembers. Both have been outwardly campaigning for the position for many months. My biggest fear is that Lewis or his allies could — even inadvertently — coerce other Democrats out of the race because of the power he has over the party.

The party is not allowed to endorse in non-partisan elections like this one for that very reason. Likewise, salaried employees of the party may not get involved. A big player in the HCDP, Finance Chair Bill Baldwin, has resigned in order to take on a more direct role in Lewis’ campaign. It simply does not pass the ‘smell test’ that the chairman of the party need not adhere to the same standards.

In the Chronicle article, Lewis defended his decision not to run, pointing to the plethora of other politicians in elected office who simultaneously run for another office. However, this ignores the most inimitable quality of Lewis’ office: its constituents are not citizens, but political cadres, including other politicians. Lewis is in a unique position to reward or punish other municipal candidates. One that HCC Trustee Chris Oliver, for example, another candidate for At-Large Position #1, simply does not have the power to do.

As Texas Leftist and John Wright (writing for Project Q Houston) have noted, there have already been spats between Lewis and another candidate (Pool). This is to be expected; it is politics, after all. But what makes political trench-fighting like this so dangerous is that Lewis has weapons at his disposal that his opponents do not. Now, I do not think Lewis has done anything improper hitherto on his campaign, but he should proactively eliminate the possibility of it altogether and resign the chairmanship.

Lewis has been a good chairman, and would make a good councilmember if elected. I want to consider supporting him, but he needs to resign as chair in order to run a feasible campaign. If he doesn’t, there is simply no way that I could support him, all other things remaining equal.

Brains & Eggs and Off the Kuff have more.

The two big things wrong with politics

I tried for a good ten minutes to find a title that briefly and succinctly describes our broken political reality without using any type of expletive; I failed. It goes without saying that, particularly at the national level, the red-versus-blue tribal mentality of the day is extraordinarily awful. I’ve been trying to figure out the underlying causes for a couple years now, and think I have finally zeroed in on two central ailments.

The first is an adulteration of sincere information, which runs hand-in-hand with the demonization of views that challenge one’s own. This, in my opinion, has by far the most deleterious consequences.

As I have noted repeatedly in a somewhat jovial manner, the degradation of the consumption of “healthy” information has been somewhat rapid in this state. Newspapers are shriveling, news radio stations are shuttering and local television news has largely been reduced to 30 minutes of shooting coverages and cats of the week. Make no mistake, this is not because of a lack of competent journalists in all mediums. It is because the average Texan — indeed, American — is far more comfortable getting his “news” from the television monitors at a gas station than in something he actually has to read. I purposefully say he because the problem is significantly worse with men.

However, apart from apathy on the part of the average citizen, many political inclined individuals have moved away from the fair arbiters of newspapers and other unbiased news sources. Fox News and MSNBC are rather trite examples, but they are only the tip of the iceberg. Many blogs allow partisans to create a completely alternate universe where their fantasies can become reality –ever so briefly. For a liberal in Austin who got 100% of her politics from Burnt Orange Report or Addicting Info, perhaps there could have been genuine shock to the utter shellacking that Wendy Davis and the Democratic slate received in Texas last year.

However, to cast this issue as equally bad on both sides would be monstrously disingenuous. When it comes to blogs and other online sources that spin the truth or just make stuff up, nobody even comes close to the Tea Party. I’m friends on Facebook with a few rabble-rousers within those organizations, and I see no shortage of evocative headlines from sketchy sources littering their timeline. They are the political equivalent of the National Enquirer, though that would probably be an insult to the Enquirer for the 5% of stuff they don’t make up.

Take this recent article from “Next Generation Patriots” about a supposed report linking Hillary Clinton to the Benghazi terrorist attack once and for all. Nevermind that even the Republican committee that orchestrated the investigations have cleared the administration. This is a BOMBSHELL REPORT! Sadly, all too many people believe this drek, because somehow they have been deluded into thinking that these uber-partisan online tabloids are more reliable than actual newspapers. I am baffled and speechless.

Similarly, I saw a Facebook friend share this nearly year-old post from “America’s Freedom Fighters,” which alleges that the Muslim Brotherhood is infiltrating the American government. At this point, I’m really at a loss for words. Are the authors of these sites actually delusional, like in a clinical way? Or do they just sit around a big room thinking of provocative things to completely lie about? And yet, individuals heavily involved in Tea Party causes, the 1% of the political process in this state, actually believe them and are influenced by them.

The decline of the information process has a companion in the elimination of robust opinion journalism. In my view, the harmful effects are comparable. We have become a nation of echo chamber dwelling simpletons, who become offended by anything that challenges our own preconceived notions.

For example, since the summer, I have served on the editorial board of The Daily Texan (one of the top 10 largest newspapers in the state), also serving as an editor for the opinion/editorial section. I like to think that the Texan runs our editorial content the way a reputable publication should. For the three semesters I have sat on the editorial board, our consensus opinion has been somewhat left-of-center, but we have always gone to lengths to ensure we have a plethora of conservative voices as columnists.

Sadly, few appear to appreciate this dedication to diversity in the editorial pages. The columns chock-full of liberal talking points get spread far-and-wide by like-minded individuals and groups; same for the conservative talking points. The few times I have shared columns that I disagreed with, but were particularly thought-provoking nonetheless, I faced nothing but derision by the “Tea Party Democrats” who incessantly accused me of being some type of horrendous political traitor who should be ashamed of myself.

Opinion content is not about validating all of your existent beliefs. Rather, it is about challenging your conventions. I have always been raised to believe if you cannot defend your views and positions against criticism and derision, they weren’t very good beliefs to begin with. With politics, that is especially true.

I subscribe to three magazines: The Atlantic, The Economist and Texas Monthly. If I had extra time and money, there would likely be others on that list, but those three in particular have always struck me as understanding how opinion content should work. They are unafraid to taking bold, new positions, and they defend these points with logic and reason remarkably well.

Particularly with the Economist, I found myself Freshman year of college disagreeing with a great deal of its content. The sophomoric juvenile in me wanted to just stop reading and retreat to the trite, backwards leftism of The Nation or Mother Jones –but the adult kept on reading. After a semester or two, two major developments had occurred in my political thought process. First, I had gotten a lot better at defending my tried-and-true liberal positions in the face of unwavering criticism. For example, the Economist is thoroughly skeptical of affirmative action, a program that I have always greatly supported. I like to think my defense of that position has been made more competent.

Second, and perhaps most important, some of my lousier political positions changed. Most notably, when I was in high school, I was a paleoliberal on topics such as free trade and protectionism. I opposed NAFTA. I favored silly, outdated things like tariffs and foolishly thought that such a course of action — say, by heavily taxing Japanese automobile imports —  could do things like pay down our deficit and assist in economic prosperity.

The more I did research inspired by those articles, the more I realized that free trade — arguably the Economist’s biggest trademark — is not an inherently bad idea. My introduction to economics class at Brandeis — a “saltwater school” in Boston, not a “freshwater school” in Chicago — corroborated this, and that was that.

Sadly, few people use opinion-based political content for such reasons anymore. All too often, it’s just used as a way to support what one already believes. Anything with which one disagrees with is immediately labeled heresy or worse.

The second, and admittedly probably less important, problem plaguing our political system is a total elimination of respect for authority. Let me clarify: I do not mean blind allegiance to one’s government or jingoistic patriotism or the like. Instead, I mean respecting the opinions of experts in their pertinent fields.

The most egregious example of this, in my opinion, is the Tea Party total adulteration of the word “constitutional.” In their topsy-turvy world, the constitution has taken on this divine power in which it is revered as a truly perfect piece of literature. “Look to the constitution” is the cliche that is the answer to nearly every single political quandary, much how “look to the Bible” is the trite retort for a proselytizing fundamentalist.

First, it goes without saying that the constitution is far from perfect (3/5ths compromise, anyone?), but the real issue is a fundamental misunderstanding of how we adjudicate disputes about the nation’s founding charter: the court system.

Even otherwise reasonable conservatives fall into this trap, quickly calling Obamacare some type of “unconstitutional” trainwreck. Most criticisms fall within the realm of one’s opinion, but the constitutionality of a law is not one of them. The Supreme Court explicitly upheld the crux of Obamacare’s constitutionality in 2012. By definition, that means it’s constitutional. I would say you’re supposed to learn about stuff like judicial review in the 11th grade, but the Oklahoma Legislature is definitely doing their best to prevent that.

The Tea Party, egged-on by those aforementioned political tabloids, has taken it upon themselves to usurp the judicial system’s authority to call something constitutional. To a lesser extent, the left has done this as well. If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard a Democrat insist the campaign finance restrictions struck down in Citizens United were indeed “constitutional,” I could’ve bought an extra Dr Pepper at lunch today. You might disagree with the decision (I do), but, by definition, it’s not constitutional. My father, an attorney, made a point of teaching me that lesson in 2008 after the District of Columbia v. Heller case. If 14 year-old Noah can understand, you can too!

Sadly, the distrust of lawyers on legal matters is not the only example of such willful ignorance. Teachers have lost their ability to teach children without criticism and, of course, doctors and other medical professionals are accused of not knowing better than parents on medical knowledge. This was recently exemplified by the recent brouhaha over vaccines.

These deleterious beliefs of one’s superiority over everyone and anyone — no matter how knowledgeable or qualified on pertinent issues — have penetrated even ostensibly professional quarters of our society. I recently found Greg Groogan, a reporter for the local Fox affiliate, promulgating that exact type of hooey, specifically on the vaccine issue. (If you want to have some fun, check out the succeeding conversation on Twitter. I called him out, and he went off on me in especially sanctimonious and patronizing way. This, from someone who just straight-up fabricated stuff during the last mayoral election.)

This was a little more longwinded than I was going for, but those are what I believe to be the two most harmful impediments to a functional political system that we currently face. I fully admit I have broken these rules myself on a variety of occasions, but I have recently been trying my best to follow them.

A little bit of housekeeping

As you may have noticed, posts on this publication have become less and less frequent in recent months. This reflects a changing reality for me, and a transition when it comes to some of my priorities. Don’t worry, this isn’t the “End of Texpatriate” obituary; rather, it is a admittance that this blog no longer can function the way it did in 2013, when we had 3 active contributors and at least 3 articles per day, if not more.

While the Texpatriate Editorial Board is still extant, its membership has been truncated and its activity has been rather dormant. I can’t really imagine that changing, in all honesty.

For at least the remainder of this academic semester, I will not be opining about national or state politics on this blog. I might break that rule is something really big happens, but probably not. When it comes to local politics, I will do my best to interject a fresh opinion every now and then, but I just do not have the time to report on breaking news in a timely fashion. When I first started Texpatriate, I often made a point of urging readers not to use the publication for first-hand news. That principle is as true now as ever. The Houston Chronicle, despite my myriad critiques, truly does yeoman’s work in reporting local political stories. Their newest addition to that beat, Teddy Schleifer, is particularly talented.

Since I started college (which, not coincidentally, is when I started this blog), I have been involved with the  newspaper on campus. At Brandeis that was The Justice and here at UT-Austin that is The Daily Texan. I am currently the Senior Associate Editor at the Texan, which essentially means that I am an overseer of the editorial section as well as have a few side projects of my own.

If you’re still interested in what I have to say on state politics, I actually do edit and contribute to another blog at the Texan, named “A Matter of Opinion.” I write 2-3 posts a week there, all about state politics, and my colleagues also contribute stellar analyses. Further, I pen most all of the editorials pertaining to legislative and political topics, which run most every day. Finally, I also host a radio show (in Austin) on KVRX every Monday at 4:00 PM, predominantly about state politics, which is recorded and uploaded online as a podcast. For copyright reasons, I cannot post the actual content on this publication.

If you are so inclined, please consider checking it out. The Texan is the only college newspaper in the state that actually produces serious political content — news and editorial — that becomes part of the conversation with some frequency. I have been honored to get the opportunities I have there, but running this blog may have been one of the greatest honors of all. Thank you all for reading, and please come back!

Lord of the Idiots

The 2016 Presidential election has officially entered silly season. There are plenty of political issues on which, no matter how heated and recalcitrant my positions may be, I can understand that there are two realistic answers to the question. On others, however, the same simply cannot be said. Natural selection occurs, the world is more than 5000 years old and vaccines do not cause Autism. Just for good measure, the earth is also round and the sky is blue.

Unfortunately, two serious candidates for president from the Republican Party are having some serious problems accepting one of those axioms, specifically the one about vaccines. First, as The New York Times reports, Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ) defended parents who irresponsibly opt out of vaccinations such as measles for their children, saying that parents “need to have some measure of choice” in the matter. In doing so, he broke with President Barack Obama’s position, which is that all children should be vaccinated against preventable diseases.

Christie unsurprisingly received a barrage of criticism for his remarks, and despite attempts to walk back the remarks, the damage was done. But suddenly, a new contender has emerged: Senator Rand Paul (R-KY).

In an interview with NBC News, Paul spoke frankly about his views on immigration. A reputed civil libertarian, Paul took exception with the alleged individual liberty violations inherent in mandatory inoculations. Most troubling, Paul lent his support to the deleterious hoax that vaccines can cause profound mental disorders such as autism.

“I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines,” he said in his CNBC interview.

This doesn’t happen. He would have been better off saying that a magical unicorn deposits gold ingots in his backyard; at least, that way, nobody would have their health put at risk because of his baldfaced lies. There was one study linking Autism and vaccines (specifically the MMR one). It was discredited, many times. The doctor in question had his license revoked, and eventually retracted the entirety of his findings. It has since come out that he just fabricated the whole thing.

Why Paul, a medical doctor, would support such preposterous dribble is beyond comprehension.

Mandatory vaccinations should be self-explanatory. Individuals with compromised immune systems or other serious ailments often cannot manage the stress of receiving a vaccination (which is minimal for those with functional immune systems), so they must rely on herd immunity. Those who can vaccinate but do not selfishly put those who cannot at risk. It is not just foolish, it is negligent and hurtful.

I never thought we would actually have to defend the validity of the measles vaccine in a presidential election. What century is this? Say what you want about Rick Perry, but his unequivocal and succinct response to all this silliness was absolutely spot-on. His partisan compatriots should learn a thing or two.

The AL4 cast shows up

The Houston Chronicle reports that a few new names have been added to the candidate roster for one of the Houston City Council’s open At-Large seats, specifically position #4, which is held by term-limited Councilmember C.O. Bradford (D-At Large 4). The seat has recently been held by a series of African-American representatives; even lead the standard-bearing Chronicle has noted this. Back in December, I noted that Laurie Robinson — a previous candidate for the city council — will be running for this position. Now, two more names have entered the fold: Amanda Edwards and Larry Blackmon.

Edwards is an attorney at a downtown blue-chip firm, whereas Blackmon is a retired teacher. Both have a number of connections in the local political scene, but they are not especially significant compared to Robinson’s. All three are fairly dependable Democrats, but each have ways of distinguishing themselves. Robinson, for example, ran against a fellow Democratic Councilmember, Jolanda Jones (AL5), when she ran in 2011 (Councilmember Jack Christie (R-At Large 5) also ran, and was the eventual winner). I was not old enough to vote in that election, but I covered the races with some familiarity, and would have voted for Robinson if I had been eligible. She garnered the endorsement of The Young Independents Club of Emery High School, for what it’s worth.

As the Chronicle article notes, this activity is relatively recent compared to the other open At-Large seat, position #1, which is being vacated by term-limited Councilmember Stephen Costello (R-At Large 1), who is also running for mayor. In that race, Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Lane Lewis, HCC Trustee Chris Oliver, Trebor Gordon, Michael “Griff” Griffin, Philippe Nassif and Jenifer Pool will face off.

For the other At-Large races, there aren’t many surprises. Former Councilmember Andrew Burks (D-At Large 2) will seek a rematch against Councilmember David Robinson (D-At Large 2), who defeated him in 2013. Councilmember Michael Kubosh (R-At Large 3) will cruise to re-election with minimal or nonexistent opposition. Perhaps the most intriguing contest is the last at-large position. Christie is reportedly running for mayor, or at least seriously thinking about it, even though he is still eligible for one more term. If he does run, it will create a third open seat. I know of one individual who is all-but-officially running for AL5, Christie or not, but I am not sure if she is willing to go on record yet. For those of you asking, my father will not be running again for the post.

As for AL4 in particular, I have two main thoughts. The first is to not be surprised if yet another candidate jumps in. I have heard about one individual in particular who has intently been looking over the race, and could really make a splash. Second, we officially have a citywide contest with more than one female candidate! In a city where the majority of the council was once comprised of women, female participation in elected municipal office has precipitously dropped. Zero women are, at press time, running for either Mayor or City Controller; a frightfully sad statistic.

In the next few days, when I have time, I will create one of my perennial side pages in preparation for the 2015 Election. Stay tuned!

Brains & Eggs, Dos Centavos and Off the Kuff have more.

In the shadow of the Tower

I have five classes on Tuesdays. Combined with some shuffling back and forward to my office at The Daily Texan (speaking of which, I recently received a new title there), this meant a full day of walking around campus. By my estimations, I walked past the Main Mall, just in front of the Tower, about a half dozen times. One such time was a little past 11:45 in the morning, as I was leaving Astronomy and (unsuccessfully) attempting to not be late to Japanese Politics. About 48 1/2 years ago, at that exact time, I would have been in the crosshairs of a psychopathic sniper named Charles Whitman, who had barricaded himself at the top of the observation deck and started shooting at random, murdering 17 people in all that day.

Now, as the Houston Chronicle reports, legislators are determined to liberalize gun laws on college campuses all around the states, including at UT-Austin. Specifically, 19 of the 20 Republicans in the state senate co-sponsored SB11, which would do exactly that (the one exception was State Senator Joan Huffman (R-Harris County)). It would mainly allow concealed handgun license (CHL) holders to bring the weapons to campuses.

I wrote somewhat extensively about this topic throughout the 83rd Legislature. In a wonderful example of how much things can change in just two years, I was opining back then all the way from Boston, instead of actually on the 40 acres. At the time, the bill passed the House but got lost in the Senate. Since that does not look to happen again this time, I would say get ready for this horrendous proposal to get enacted into law.

The reason I reference the Tower sniper attack in my introduction is not to suggest that this will open the floodgates to more mass shootings. Rather, it is to demonstrate the futility of such a proposal. Say, for example, one of the students had a legally concealed handgun. The likelihood of him or her effectively firing at the top of the tower and subduing Whitman would have been quite low.

The Daily Texan has an editorial, coming to print tomorrow morning, that addresses most of the other points on “Guns on Campus” one way or another, but the main argument remains the same: this is a spectacularly bad idea. As time goes on, I will continue to closely follow these bills.

In other news, the Texas Tribune reports that Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has announced that the “Open Carry” proposals currently do not have the votes to move the legislation. He also implied to the Tribune that other priorities would likely come first. This has drawn the ire of right-wing grassroots.

Patrick finalizes Senate committees

The Texas Tribune reports that Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has finalized committee assignments in the senate for the 84th Legislature. Making good on two longstanding committees, Patrick both consolidated the number of committees and significantly reduced the number of Democratic chairs for those committees that remained. Three committees (Government Organization, Jurisprudence and Open Government) got the ax, and a further two committees (Economic Development and Natural Resources, respectively) were merged. This had the overall effect of slashing the total number of committees from 18 to 14.

All three folded committees had been chaired in the 83rd session by Democrats, as did a further three committees. Thus, 1/3rd of the committees had Democrats at the helm, roughly the proportion of the chamber controlled by the minority party. Patrick kept State Senator John Whitmire (D-Harris County), the dean of the chamber, in charge of the Criminal Justice Committee, a position he has held for many years. He also tapped State Senator Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Cameron County) as the chair of Intergovernmental Relations, a rather low-ranking post. Reportedly, this was an olive branch extended to the upper house’s most centrist Democrat. Lucio was the one Democrat this past week to vote for the elimination of the 2/3rds rule, as well as for the omnibus anti-abortion bill HB2 (the one Wendy Davis filibustered) in 2013.

Among other important picks and retentions was State Senator Kel Seliger (R-Potter County) staying on as the chairman of the Higher Education Committee. Seliger has been, according to the Tribune article, an “occasional critic” of the Lieutenant Governor. He also is especially pro-Bill Powers and anti-Wallace Hall, for what it’s worth. State Senators Robert Nichols (R-Cherokee County) and Kevin Eltife (R-Smith County), respectively, also retained their chairmanships (Transportation and Business & Commerce, respectively).

State Senator Craig Estes (R-Wichita County), a two-time chair in the 83rd (Agriculture & Rural Affairs and State Affairs), was stripped of both titles. Harvey Kronberg at Quorum Report opined this could be because Estes was the sole Republican against the 2/3rds rule’s demise. Estes was replaced at Agriculture, Water & Rural Affairs by State Senator Charles Perry (R-Lubbock County), a freshman. I found it somewhat interesting and telling that the one freshman tapped was not a right-wing activist like State Senators Don Huffines (R-Dallas County), Konni Burton (R-Tarrant County) or Bob Hall (R-Van Zandt County), to name a few.

Finally, all eyes were on the Senate Education Committee, of which Patrick previously chaired when he served in the upper chamber. He selected State Senator Larry Taylor (R-Galveston County) as the replacement, which garnered a wide variety of responses. Breitbart Texas appears particularly stoked. Many observers prognosticate that Patrick — now flanked by Taylor — will pursue a wide variety of educational reforms, including a more extensive use of vouchers for charter and private schools.

Say what you want about Patrick, but his first few days in office have featured nothing but him staying true on his word. Unfortunately, that means he was not bluffing on the campaign trail about implementing a very conservative agenda if sent to high office.

This is just a preview of things to come. Patrick is looking more and more like a boisterous and powerful lieutenant governor (the anti-Dewhurst, if you will). Meanwhile, Abbott looks as though he may not continue Perry’s mega-powerful theme. Texas politics may very well regress back to the mean, with a more powerful lieutenant governor and a less powerful governor. Still, don’t be surprised if Patrick runs for governor (and wins) in 2018.