Is Joe Straus a liberal?

My friend Paul Burka at Texas Monthly pegs this question, rather facetiously, in response to a recent blog post at Forbes Magazine. Spoiler alert, the answer is a total and resounding NO! The original post, entitled “Meet the Harry Reid of Texas,” is a ludicrous attempt to paint the Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, State Representative Joe Straus (R-Bexar County), a bona fide Republican, as some type of closet Democrat. It is penned by a gentleman named Patrick Gleason, who (a cursory background search will reveal) is a staffer for Americans for Tax Reform, otherwise known as Grover Norquist’s group.

The post, which Burka notes “has all the earmarks of a Michael Quinn Sullivan put-up,” delineates the pragmatic background of Straus. For those not familiar, he was first elected Speaker in 2009. At that time, a coalition of eleven moderate Republicans banded together with the Democrats to topple the regime of Speaker Tom Craddick. The anger against Craddick was not necessarily based on politics, but on leadership style. Craddick was brash, and railroaded over other Representatives in an attempt to wield absolute power.

Because Straus and his band of allies dealt with Democrats, his underlying loyalty has been suspect by the most extreme Republicans ever since. He has a steadfast dedication to the important issues, such as roads and infrastructure. Meanwhile, he openly calls for the lower house to not focus too intently on controversial, us-versus-them social issues.

For his part, Straus is better than his predecessor, and has always cooperated in good faith with Democrats on many important issues. However, at the end of the day, he is still a Republican. I would still prefer him to be replaced by a Democratic Speaker. And, in what should be most important for the Tea Party, he will –albeit reluctantly– bring up those controversial social issues when pushed by his members and State Leadership.

For example, the Texas House, under Straus’ stewardship, passed a Voter ID act. They also passed “Guns on Campus” last year, though the Senate did not. Ditto with onerous abortion restrictions last summer.

Accordingly, why do these right-wingers loathe Straus so much? For one, his rise to power is disquieting to party orthodoxy. But, in my opinion, it is far more than that. This is about distrust of a pragmatic Texas Republican, one of the last ones left in high office, and his honest effort to run a better State. Not a more conservative State, just a better State.

Burka, for his part, agrees at least one piece of sentiment expressed in the Forbes article; right-wing pipe dreams passed out of a Texas Senate controlled by a Lieutenant Governor named Dan Patrick would almost certainly go nowhere in Straus’ House. The post also referenced State Representative Jason Villalba (R-Dallas County), a vocal Straus ally and one of the few –perhaps the only– openly moderate freshmen GOP Representatives. Villalba predicted that these pipe dreams, such as anti-Common Core bills, would be “put on the back burner” and eventually aged to death on the calendar committee.

In other places on the anti-Straus front, the Speaker has actually garnered some real opposition from among the House’s ranks. State Representative Scott Turner (R-Rockwall County) has announced a public campaign against the Speaker, though he still appears to be receiving only minimal support from usual suspects. Previous attempts against Sraus’ speakership have been spectacularly unsuccessful. Failed candidacies by both State Representative Bryan Hughes (R-Wood County) and David Simpson (R-Gregg County) were both aborted prior to actual voting.

I still maintain a good amount of respect for Straus, but my opinion is that Burka gives him far too much credit to stand up to the powers to be on contentious topics. It was a lot easier for Straus to be a moderate when his companions were Rick Perry as Governor (pre Presidential campaign) and David Dewhurst as Lieutenant Governor. Next session, in all likelihood, his companions will be Greg Abbott as Governor and Dan Patrick as Lieutenant Governor. Three full steps to the right, maybe more.

Straus folded like a cheap card table last summer when Perry began exacting pressure on him to pass the abortion restrictions. I have little doubt that he will fold once more when the time comes for Abbott to lay out his ambitious right-wing agenda. Just wait. Straus will, thankfully for him, largely placate his right-wing detractors. Unfortunately for the rest of us, it will be because of the dreaded 84th session.

Texpatriate’s Questions for John Whitmire

Editorial note: This is the eighth in our series of electronic interviews with candidates for Statewide and Harris County offices. We have sent questionnaires to every candidate on the ballot, given we could find a working email address. We have printed their answers verbatim as we receive them. If you are or work for such a candidate, and we did not send a questionnaire, please contact us <info@texpate.com>.

John Whitmire, State Senator

Texpatriate: What is your name?
JW: John Whitmire

T: How long have your held this post? What number term are you seeking?
JW: 31 years

T: Please list all the elected or appointed POLITICAL offices you have previously held, and for what years you held them.
JW: State Representative 1973-1983

T: What is your political party?
JW: Democrat

T: Please describe a bill that you have introduced, which has later become law. What did it accomplish, what were its purposes? If no such bill exists, please do the same for an amendment.
JW: SB 344 created a writ of habeas corpus review and authorized relief of a conviction based on faulty or discredited scientific evidence. This new law has led to hundreds of reviews of cases and many overturned convictions and is the now the model for the nation.

T: Please describe a bill that you have introduced this past session of the Legislature. What did it accomplish, what were its purposes?
JW: SB 825 starts the statute of limitations on cases of prosecutorial misconduct to coincide with the release of the wrongfully convicted. This legislation was based on the wrongful conviction of Michael Morton and affords those wrongfully convicted additional time to pursue a case of prosecutorial misconduct.

T: Why you, as opposed to your opponents?
JW: Experience counts.

T: What role do you think a Texas Senator should have?
JW: Representing their constituents in Austin. Shaping public policy that benefits Texans. Giving a voice to those who don’t otherwise have one.

T: What is your opinion about the continued use (or non-use) of the 2/3rds rule in the Texas Senate?
JW: Strong defender of the Senate’s 2/3 rule.

T: What are the three most important issues to you, and what is at least one thing you have done to address each of them?
JW: Education – continue to fight for increased funding and equity in our public schools. Healthcare – promote increased funding for the elderly, disabled, and fragile and support efforts to expand Medicaid in Texas. Criminal Justice reform – continue to lead the fight to expand rehabilitation, treatment, and alternatives to prison. Successfully closed 3 prisons in Texas.

NDO petition fight heads to Texas Supreme Court

The Houston Chronicle reports that opponents of the local non-discrimination ordinance passed by the Houston City Council have taken their case to the Texas Supreme Court. Specifically, they are seeking an emergency order to force the issue onto this November’s ballot, following a contentious referendum petition effort.

As I recently explained, a controversy has erupted over the NDO –which codifies existing Federal and State anti-discrimination statutes (protecting against race, sex and religion, for example) onto local law, as well as extends new protections for LGBT individuals– following an effort to override the City Council, which approved the ordinance 11-6 last May. Under city law, such an ordinance could be placed upon the ballot for a referendum if enough signatures are gathered within 30 days. Opponents claimed they acquired more than enough signatures, but most of them were disqualified, either for not being properly registered to vote or not living within the city limits of Houston. City Secretary Anna Russell originally determined the signatures to pass the threshold, just barely, but a subsequent independent investigation by City Attorney David Feldman reversed this ruling. Feldman specifically challenged the validity of any signatures on a petition page circulated by an improperly registered circulator.

This is the crux of a legal argument made against the initial decision by Feldman and Mayor Annise Parker to not humor a referendum on this topic. Originally, the opponents filed in State District Court, and received a temporary restraining order by ancillary Judge Jeff Shadwick (R-55th). However, this order was lifted when the case went to the court of Judge Robert Schaffer (D-152nd), and mandamus was denied by the Court of Appeals. As I had understood the mutually agreed upon result to be, a longer hearing would be held on the matter in January 2015, and the issue would not be on the ballot this year. City officials have even stated that the full deadline to place things on a November ballot is August 18th, which is now in the past.

Evidently, plaintiff Jared Woodfill did not get the memorandum. He is seeking, as expedited as possible, mandamus from the Texas Supreme Court, ordering the City to certify Russell’s –and not Feldman’s or Parker’s– petition decision, thus placing this matter on a ballot. Woodfill, a former Chairman of the Harris County Republican Party, evidently is not sold by the whole “deadline to place on the ballot” idea. Go figure.

Those sagacious followers of this publication I always reference will indubitably know I am skeptical of the life of the NDO if it is ever put up on a referendum. Young people and other socially liberal cohorts just don’t get off their butts on go to a voting booth. They’re just lazy, come election day; there’s no way around it. Opponents of this ordinance, though, and other broadly Tea Party aligned groups, would figuratively walk over hot coals in order to vote.

I had thought, however, that the best chances the NDO would have would be if the referendum were held this November, as opposed to next November or next May. However, its chances would be based on an aggressive and effective campaign to save the NDO. Given that it’s nearly Labor Day and such a campaign is not existent, those bets would surely be off.

All in all, my main point is that this is a mess, and while the Texas Supreme Court may be unpredictable, there is nothing to say the partisan nature of the court should lead it to intervene. The two Courts of Appeals in the Houston area are, sans one Democrat, completely filled with Republicans, and they pointedly denied mandamus. Thus, there is no reason necessarily to think that anything rash will occur. But I’ve been wrong before.

Another Astrodome proposal

Reliant_Astrodome_in_January_2014

The Houston Chronicle reports that County Judge Ed Emmett (R) has unveiled yet another plan for the Astrodome: turning it into a large indoor park and recreation center. Under Emmett’s vision, the area would have “a large open green for festivals and other community gatherings, general exercise facilities, an amphitheater, a pavilion for music and other events  and special educational facilities for children, even museums.”

The announcement was made at a rather grandiose press conference by the County Judge, and served mainly as an opportunity to provide a vision on the idea, not to work out the details. Emmett freely admitted that he has not run the numbers on what all of this would cost, and from the sounds of it, the total expenditures would likely be pricey. As the astute will surely recall, there was a previous proposal to renovate the Astordome –which has stood vacant for about 10 years– last year. The County Judge and Commissioners approved idea, which would have created $217 Million in bonds to repurpose the dome into a convention center, was shot down by voters in a November referendum. Exit polls heavily insinuated that voters’ key concern was its high cost.

After the referendum boondoggle, many began to think the Astrodome would likely be demolished. A much, much cheaper proposal was floated to demolish the dome and convert it into a park with a small “replica dome” around where home plate once stood. However, progress on demolition came to a grounding halt at the end of last month, when a State Commission indefinitely tabled a designation on the site’s historical status. Needless to say, it’s been a long and grueling ride.

As I stated in one of the previous articles linked to this post, I am still very conflicted on the Astrodome. While I wholeheartedly supported last year’s resolution, the people spoke and rejected spending a significant amount of money to renovate it. I obviously still disagree with their small-minded, senseless and carpetbagger-esque rationale, but there is something to be said for a public servant who follows the desires of his constituents. Emmett spoke today about securing private funds for this project. If there is any modicum of a chance that is possible, I sincerely wish it to happen, but color me skeptical. I have no doubt that if outside funding had previously been a realistic source of revenue, in order to mitigate the damage done to taxpayers, it would have been used for last year’s resolution.

All in all, as you are probably aware by this point, the total and final say on what happens to the dome is with the Commissioner’s Court, which Emmett rules over somewhat firmly. Granted that he’s a shoe-in to stay in his current post until early 2019, two years after we host the Super Bowl, this could prove very interesting. Emmett, for his part, has stated that he will, in no circumstances, be okay with the Astrodome being demolished. County Commissioner El Franco Lee (D-Pct 1), for what it’s worth, was the only Commissioner interviewed by the Chronicle to voice an opinion on today’s proposal. He was cautiously optimistic.

What do you think about the dome proposal?

Texpatriate supports Death Penalty abolition

The death penalty has not really been the topic of political conversation of late. Earlier this month, Noah M. Horwitz wrote on how both gubernatorial candidates –State Senator Wendy Davis (D-Tarrant County), the Democrat, and Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican– were tried and true supporters of capital punishment. Even Davis supported the expansion, much less continuation, of the mechanisms.

Now, the fact that both serious gubernatorial contenders support capital punishment should not be all that surprising. After all, recent polling suggests that more than 70% of Texans support its continued use. However, since 2012, the Texas Democratic Party has called for the total abolition of capital punishment as a part of its platform. Simply put, this board has eagerly been awaiting Democratic candidates to follow through with espousal of such a plank.

Davis supports the death penalty, but as best as we can figure out, so does State Senator Leticia Van de Putte (D-Bexar County), the Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor. Ditto for Sam Houston (Democrat’s candidate Attorney General) and Kim Ogg (Democrat’s candidate for Harris County District Attorney). So what gives?

The previous individual posts and editorials of this publication have certainly heavily suggested such a conclusion, but we are not completely sure if it has ever been unequivocally stated in print. To be clear, this board supports the total abolition of capital punishment. There are a literal plethora of reasons why the sentence is ineffective or overly pricey. And the process of lethal injection, particularly with recent shortages of execution drugs, raises important important questions about unnecessary cruelty. But the overarching concern with this issue is that, no matter which way it is carried out, the killing of another human who does not present any immediate or existential danger to another is morally wrong. That’s it.

This can be a religious issue, if one prefers it that way. The bible is pretty clear about the whole “Thou shall not kill” thing. But wholly separate from any religious influence, all people should agree that minimizing violence is an ideal way to run a civilization. Vengeance is not a healthy way to govern our laws. The entire reason why vigilante justice and lynch mobs are illegal is that primal reactions should not trump the established moral supremacy of due process and civil liberties.

But to humor the other arguments, it can be shown that death penalty does not deter violent crime. It’s not even an open question. Nor does it actually save money; every significant investigation has shown that it actually costs more money to follow through with a death sentence than the cheaper penalty of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Furthermore, recent travesties in Oklahoma and Arizona have reopened debate on just how “painless” death by lethal injection actually is compared to other methods.

At the root of all these problems, however, is a fundamental moral hiccup with the idea that it is okay to kill another human being. We seriously do not see it as that complicated.

Likewise, it should not be all that complicated for the aforementioned Democrats to come down on the right side of this issue. There is something to be said for not going too far to the left in an attempt to remain viable to a more centre-right electorate. But the death penalty, an issue where people’s lives are quite literally directly at stake, is simply different.

Perhaps this board is too full of starry-eyed optimist. But we dream of a State where our politicians –ostensibly courageous public servants who will do what’s right over what’s popular– aren’t afraid of some mythical blowback for publicly espousing a position everyone already knows is being peddled in private.–The Texpatriate Editorial Board is comprised of Noah M. Horwitz & Olivia Arena of Austin, George Bailey of Boston, Luis Fayad of College Station and Andrew Scott Romo of New Orleans. Editorials represents a majority of the board.

Texpatriate’s Questions for Herb Ritchie

Editorial note: This is the seventh in our series of electronic interviews with candidates for Statewide and Harris County offices. We have sent questionnaires to every candidate on the ballot, given we could find a working email address. We have printed their answers verbatim as we receive them. If you are or work for such a candidate, and we did not send a questionnaire, please contact us <info@texpate.com>.

 Herb Ritchie

Herb Ritchie, Democratic candidate for the 263rd Criminal District Court

Texpatriate: What is your name?
HR: Herb Ritchie

T: What office are you seeking?
HR: Judge, 263rd Criminal District Court, Harris County, Texas.

T: Please list all the elected or appointed POLITICAL (including all Judicial) offices you have previously held, and for what years you held them.
HR: Judge, 337th Criminal District Court, Harris County, Texas; January 1, 2009 through December 31, 2012.

T: What is your political party?
HR:Democrat.

T: What is a specific case in which you disagree with actions undertaken by the incumbent?
HR: Offenders serving a sentence for a state jail felony currently do not earn good conduct time for time served. However, as previous Judge of the 337th Criminal District Court, I told defendants at sentencing that I would award maximum diligent participation credit for diligent participation in programs such as work, education, and/or treatment. My rationale was that this would (1) save taxpayer money since less jail space would required; (2) encourage defendants to better themselves through education and treatment for substance abuse; (3) discourage inmate fighting and abuse toward jailers, lest the time credit be lost. The incumbent to my knowledge has not, and does not award diligent participation credit.

T: What is a contentious issue that you believe the Court will face in the near future? Why is it important? How would you solve it?
HR: The dockets in Harris County continue to grow larger each year with no additional courts being created to handle the ever burgeoning population. I will support requests for the creation of more criminal district courts. In the meantime, I will continue to work diligently, just as I did previously, to insure that every defendant receives a prompt, full and fair hearing and/or trial.

T: Do you believe that the incumbent has specifically failed at her or his job? If so, why?
HR: I think it is more appropriate to set forth the positives of my candidacy rather than to speak negatively of the incumbent. The voters will make this judgment in the upcoming election.

T: Why you, as opposed to your opponents?
HR: My qualifications are as follows:

U.T. honor graduate (B.A. 1967, with honors; M.A. 1969; J.D. 1974, with honors); Phi Beta Kappa (Honorary Academics Achievement); Phi Delta Phi (Honorary Legal Achievement); Eta Sigma Phi (Honorary Classics Achievement); past teacher/instructor of Classics at U.T.-Austin and Baylor University; Teacher’s Award Mortgages; third highest grade, Texas Bar Examination; past counsel Texas Real Estate Commission and Southwestern Bell Telephone Co., past managing partner, Ritchie & Glass, Law Firm; experienced in both civil and criminal cases and appellate procedure; Board Certified in Criminal Law since 1987 by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization; member: Houston Bar Association, College of the State Bar of Texas. Licensed to practice in all Texas Courts, Southern, Western and Eastern District of Texas, Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and U.S. Supreme Court. Elected Judge 337th Criminal District Court, 2009-2012.

T: What role do you think a Criminal District Judge should have individually? What role do you think the Criminal District Courts should have as a whole?
HR: Individually a Criminal District Judge should exhibit patience, judicial temperament and demeanor. The role requires the highest degree of integrity and the treatment of all persons fairly, equally and respectfully. The Criminal District Courts as a whole should promote faith, confidence in and respect for the American criminal justice system.

T: What role do you believe a Judge should have in plea bargains? Do you think a Judge should ever veto an agreement between the District Attorney and Defense Attorneys?
HR: The Judge should normally let the attorneys for the State and defense agree upon the appropriate disposition of a case based upon the facts, evidence, and criminal history of the defendant. A Judge should veto a plea bargain only when there appears to be a miscarriage of justice, should the plea bargain be followed.

T: What role do you think that rehabilitation, rather than punishment, particularly for drug offenses, should have in the criminal justice process?
HR: For the non-violent drug offender, treatment is preferable to incarceration. This saves taxpayer money by reserving prison space for violent offenders such as rapists, child sex offenders, robbers, murderers, etc.

T: What are your thoughts on the partisan election of Judges?
HR: I believe in the partisan election of judges for the following reasons: (1) appointed judges are often likely to suffer from “black robe disease” or “robitis”, and even with retention elections, it can be difficult to dislodge an unfit, arrogant judge; (2) judges need to be accountable to the electorate rather than be chosen by a few political insiders; (3) in large counties such as Harris, it is impossible to know all the individual candidates, and party label often gives some clue about a candidate; (4) non-partisan elections are more likely to produce winners with common, familiar-sounding or likeable names; (5) the political parties themselves will often screen out unqualified candidates through various party group endorsements and primary contests. While some argue that appointed judges are less susceptible to political pressure, an elected judge of good character will follow the law and not succumb to political pressure or public clamor. I realize that sometimes political sweeps can remove from office some qualified judges, and install some less qualified jurists, but the reverse is also sometimes true. In short this is a difficult and perplexing question; the answer to which, reasonable minds may differ.

T: What are the three most important issues to you, and what is at least one thing you have done to address each of them?
HR: (1) The dockets in Harris county have exploded with the burgeoning population, and the last criminal district court in Harris County was created in 1985. I have advocated for the creation of additional courts, and also for the addition of court magistrates to hear uncontested pleas and other administrative matters in order that the elected judges can spend more time trying and disposing of contested cases. Additionally, when judge of the 337th Criminal District Court, I spent long hours on the bench whenever necessary to keep the docket as current as possible.

(2) Jail overcrowding is a serious and dangerous problem. As mentioned earlier, I would give diligent participation credit to state jail prisoners. Additionally, I would try to rehabilitate non-violent substance abuse offenders in appropriate cases. I had at one time, to the best of my knowledge, more defendants on probation and deferred adjudication than any other criminal district judge in Harris County. The jail space was saved for violent offenders who were a danger to the community.

(3) Effective representation of indigent defendants is a great concern, and I used the Harris County Public Defenders Office as much as possible. This would ensure that by and large the same resources would be available to the defense of the indigent as there would be for the prosecution. There needs to be a level playing field for justice to prevail.

Civil Affairs: Courthouse

CIVIL AFFAIRS

Meticulously following both the 2013 election and the 2014 election has led me to examine the many differences between the two campaign cycles. In the former, an individual voter makes selections in a grand total of 8 elections at City Hall, plus one or two –give or take– around various school boards. The duties and responsibilities for these elected posts are quite straightforward. Stewardship of a municipality typically deals with rather simple issues, such as budgets and the passage of ordinances that directly deal with the public. The weeds of the issue may be complex, but it can be simplified into a newspaper headline at the end of the day.

The races down at the Courthouse, in a word, are not. Quite different from off-year elections, the average voter in Harris County will find herself with about 90 different contests to make a selection in, the vast majority of which being local judicial offices. I’m not naive, I know darn well that over 99 out of 100 voters will not bother to know the inside story about each and every race, and will likely just pull the lever straight ticket one way or another. Indeed, I would be comfortable assuming today that the sizable majority of the judicial candidates I vote for will be Democrats, even though I have not begun to intently analyze any of these contests.

One of the biggest problems with public engagement in this process is the shear number of candidates; even for the most experienced political mavens, it can be overwhelming. As I have lightly opined in the past, perhaps Texas should not elect its judges. While electing one District Judge and one County Judge for a small community may have made sense 100 years ago, the staggered hodgepodge of literally hundreds of jurists in the Harris County area just is not effective anymore.

But an equally frustrating problem that can occur when trying to make rational decisions in these contests is the amount of legal jargon and complexity thrown into the equation. Maury Maverick, the Mayor of San Antonio from 1935 to 1939, was arguably best known for coining the word “gobbledygook,” for excessively bureaucratic language. I am a layperson, as is the vast majority of the Texas electorate, so most of the goings-on at the Courthouse are coated in what could only generously be referred to as such gobbledygook.

However, such an attitude is enormously damaging to the integrity of the entire county. The great/scary thing about the way our judicial selection is set up is that I have the exact same say in selecting a Judge than an attorney who has practiced before that courtroom for the past 40 years. And obviously, there are a lot more people like me than like the hypothetical attorney.

At Texpatriate, we have positively zero attorneys among our contributors. Thus, there is some light confusion when we deal with going-ons at the Courthouse, namely our endorsement process for judicial elections. For the Democratic & Republican primaries, as well for the upcoming general election, we consulted with a few anonymous attorneys with special expertise in the courts we were profiling. However, at the end of the day, we made our own decisions.

I think that is one of the best parts about our judicial system, how open it is to the general public (at least, theoretically). Court Coordinators and other court staff, all of whom are invaluable to the process of how the legal system moves along, are seldom attorneys. Similarly, both grand juries and petite juries are almost always comprised of non-lawyers. The adjudication of a case, in many instances, is literally only decided as a direct result of their action.

Make no mistake, the best way to directly involve yourself in courthouse politics is to speak up on the issues or get involved. If you are unfamiliar with the background of certain issues, consult a friend who is an attorney to help you out. As an adulteration of the famous Pericles quote, just because you don’t take an interest in the Courthouse, doesn’t mean the Courthouse won’t take an interest in you.

Chances are, you or someone you know will be involved in the Criminal Justice system, either as a defendant, a victim or a witness. You may very well have a high-stakes squabble over money, which would be routed into Civil Court. With over 50% of marriages ending in divorce, there is also a high probability that you end up in a Family Court. And, of course, one of the ugliest truths of life is that you and everyone you are related to will eventually die, likely to leave behind an estate that must be probated in Court.

My parting advice is merely to do a little digging about these judicial offices yourself, because straight ticket voting –in many instances– simply will not cut it. Many incumbent Republican Judges are decent and fair legal minds, but many are not. It’s up to you to change that.