Bob Lanier, 1925-2014

On Saturday evening, former Mayor Bob Lanier passed away. He was 89. In his lengthy career of public service, Lanier served as the Chairman of the Texas Highway Commission, Chairman of METRO and the Mayor of Houston for three terms from 1992 to 1998.

Born to humble beginnings, the brilliant Lanier earned a degree from the prestigious University of Texas Law School and went into private practice in Houston. Soon thereafter, he shifted his sights to real estate and development, and amassed a small fortune. But Lanier’s central priority was never to earn money, and he made a point of shifting toward public service later in his career.

Serving on both the Highway Commission and at the helm of METRO, Lanier tirelessly worked to improve traffic and congestion around town. Perhaps most notably, Lanier butted heads with the mayor at the time, Kathy Whitmire, over an ambitious and pricey proposal to build a massive monorail system throughout Houston. Lanier decried the idea as a naive boondoggle, and — among other reasons — used it as an impetus to run for mayor and win. One of his first goals was nixing the monorail proposal; a decision that is still divisive within Houston political circles.

Over the next six years, Lanier worked hand-in-hand with business leaders and political establishment figures. He did a lot to improve traffic, namely by investing more into roads. He also increased the number of police officers in the city, a driving factor in a huge plunge in the crime rate (which was also attributed to a nationwide trend).

But, Lanier — always a card-carrying Democrat — also accomplished many progressive goals. He dedicated the bulk of his last term in office to saving/expanding affirmative action in Houston, namely reserving a share of city contracts to minority & women owned businesses. In a time when the national sentiment moved against the use of racial preferences in places as liberal as California, Houston bucked the trend in 1997 when they approved Lanier’s affirmative action program. The New York Times ran a headline on the topic, because of just how unexpected the voter support was. Lanier fastidiously worked to accrue corporate backing for affirmative action, and touted the program as a way to ensure diversity within Houston.

Lanier was also an important union backer, insisting upon their inclusion in big public sector developments such as the downtown Hilton Hotel at the convention center. Perhaps most importantly, Lanier worked to ensure diversity in this city within politics as well as business. He appointed both Ben Hall and Gene Locke as City Attorney, propelling both men’s political careers, and he was also invaluable in electing Lee Brown, the first African-American Mayor, as his successor.

I only met Lanier a few times in passing, but I am close with few people who knew him very well. What they all told me was that the casual, cheerful, “grandfatherly” demeanor he emitted in public did not change one bit behind closed doors. Even ideological opponents of Lanier conceded that he was a righteous man who tried his hardest to do what he thought was right for this city.

Lanier was the mayor when I was born and, unlike any succeeding mayors, I do not personally remember any of his term. But what I’ve read and what I’ve been told suggest, better than I could ever recall, that he was a truly inimitable figure within local politics. Among others reasons, Lanier’s endorsement of Locke was one of the reasons my family supported him in 2009, the first mayoral election I intently followed.

Houston has truly lost a giant. My deepest sympathies and condolences are extended to his widow, Elyse Lanier, as well as his other family.

David Feldman resigns

The Houston Chronicle reports that David Feldman, the City Attorney of Houston, has resigned. Feldman took office in May 2010, a few months into Mayor Annise Parker’s first term, and has worked under her for the succeeding nearly five years. Now, with just a little more than a year left on Parker’s final term in office, Feldman is out the door.

Ostensibly, it is because he wishes to go into private practice with his son, who is also an attorney. But Feldman, a former partner at the blue-chip firm Vinson & Elkins, would have surely had that opportunity — as well as a plethora of others — waiting for him at the end of Parker’s time in office. Some individuals, namely former Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill, contend that Feldman is leaving because of the firestorm that erupted regarding the recent asinine decision by Feldman’s office to subpoena pertinent sermons from pastors, namely those involving the non-discrimination ordinance and its succeeding referendum effort. Feldman, for his part, claims he did not personally authorize the subpoenas but conceded that the issuing of them was a blunder on his part.

Interestingly enough, Feldman’s resignation — which will take effect on January 16th of next year — occurs just before a planned trial on the validity of petition efforts to overturn the aforementioned NDO. Feldman himself intimated to the Chronicle that he wished to resign before the trial, so that he could testify and not disqualify the Legal Department staff from serving as counsel. However, the cottage legal expert that the Chronicle sought out even noted that such drastic concerns were patently silly. My legal sources have said the same thing.

The Chronicle article is yeoman’s work by Mike Morris, and it essentially pens Feldman’s political obituary; I highly recommend reading the whole thing. One point of note is that, even among ideological opponents on the NDO, such as Councilmember Oliver Pennington (R-District G), Feldman was well-liked as an honest hard worker. Although his legacy will likely be cemented in that controversial ordinance, he does have a history of working hard to achieve many of the other city goals.

I think I am most curious, however, about the exact decision for Feldman to leave office. As the Houston Press notes (as well as the Chronicle article), the city is also approaching a big battle with the Firefighter’s Union regarding contracts. The interim president of that union, as the Chronicle quotes, did not have any kind words for Feldman on the news of his departure.

I’m in Galveston this morning, but I can still hear quacking all the day from City Hall. As Parker enters the final few months of her term, more and more senior staff will begin jumping ship. Not necessarily a judgment on her administration in particular, just a common component of the six-year itch in municipal politics. One must wonder, though, if the negative press over the NDO played a greater part specifically in Feldman calling it quits.

Lewis will run for Council

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The Houston Chronicle reports that Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Lane Lewis will run for the City Council in 2015, namely At-Large Position #1. The position is currently held by Councilmember Stephen Costello (R-At Large 1), who is term-limited as well as a likely mayoral candidate. Lewis, who has served as Chairman since 2011, previously ran for the City Council in 2009, when he sought an open seat in District A (and lost a runoff election to Brenda Stardig).

It is interesting that Lewis would go so early for the AL1 position, given the dynamics of the other council races. Councilmember C.O. Bradford (D-At Large 4) is term limited yet there are no candidates openly vying for his post at press time. Similarly, Councilmember Jack Christie (R-At Large 5) is a likely mayoral candidate, and thus his seat would be open even though he could ostensibly run again. Similarly, no one is making waves there. But with the introduction of Lewis, there are now three open candidates for AL1. In addition to him, Philippe Nassif has been openly running since at least the State Convention in June.  Jenifer Pool, a favorite in the LGBT community and a three-time candidate, will also seek this specific position. Given that the filing deadline is in August, however, much can change in the flash of an eye.

I must admit that I am unaware of if a County Chair would or would not resign his position to run for a post such as this one. And, if Lewis does resign, who would the favorite be to succeed him? I’m sure I’ll get an answer to both of those questions tomorrow and will update accordingly. According to Theodore Schleifer, the Chronicle reporter who broke this story, Lewis will stay on as chair for the time being, but circumstances may change in the heat of the campaign.

Cards on the table, I’m a fan of Lewis. He was selected as the 2012 Texpatriate Person of the Year and I think he did a great job of attracting some good Democratic candidates this past cycle. That being said, I really like Nassif as well as Pool too. I think all three would make good candidates and look forward to some of the points they raise in the campaign.

I’ve heard quite a few other names as rumor and hearsay, but have decided not to repeat them here, given the unreliability of some of my sources. I’ll have more when I can make confirmations.

Jeb Bush 2016

The New York Times reports that former Governor Jeb Bush (R-FL) has taken the first decisive step toward running for president in the upcoming 2016 election. Bush created something called a “leadership PAC” that actively explores the possibility of running for president. It is tantamount in all but name to an Exploratory Committee, and few — if any — serious observers contend that there is a realistic chance he would not follow through and run at this time.

Bush, the brother of former President George W. Bush and son of former President George H.W. Bush, is largely seen as the continuation of a quintessential Republican establishment dynasty. While the family may have been, in some circles, considered on the rightward periphery of the party in 2000, times have markedly changed since that time. Specifically, since the advent of the Tea Party, Bush has been lambasted by the base of his own party as insufficiently conservative on immigration-related issues. Earlier this year, he even suggested unauthorized border crossings were an “act of love,” drawing the ire of the right-wing. Bilingual and the husband of a Mexican-immigration (additionally the father of Land Commissioner-elect George P. Bush), Bush is seen as a uniquely formidable Republican opponent for Democratic presidential contenders, namely former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Prompted by Bush, a few other names have clamored to reiterate their longstanding almost-campaigns. The serious politicians who belong in that category include Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), Governor Rick Perry (R-TX), Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Governor Scott Walker (R-WI), among other less glamorous options.

Last month, I prognosticated that Cruz has the best chance of the pack to be nominated, and I reiterate that comment again tonight. Make no mistake, the ultra-conservatives (Tea Party) are in firmer control of the party now than they were four years ago. They have only been enraged over the years as their preferred candidates have been cast aside in favor of comparable-pragmatists, such as John McCain and Mitt Romney, who then fell in the general election. Bush — or Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ), for that matter — will be shunned because he will be seen as a continuation of the “play it safe” strategy.

Of course, the success of a presidential candidate has little to do with ideology, because the American public does not care enough to understand said ideology. They care about the charisma and soundbites of the messenger. That is why Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in a way that Gerald Ford likely would not have, even though Reagan was significantly more conservative.

Much in the same respect, Cruz is a phenomenal messenger in a way that none of the other candidates are. Not since Joseph McCarthy have the Republicans had a national figure so comfortable with making things up and completely disregarding the truth without so much as a modicum of shame. The only difference is that the media is so impotent and feckless nowadays that there is no Edward R. Murrow to call him out. Cruz is confident, assured and smart, so the base in his party goes along for the ride, even though I think it is fairly obvious he would sell them out in an instant to further his own interest. When the time comes, I believe, the general public will similarly fall for him.

If the Tea Party is looking for a knight in shining armor, they will be sorely disappointed just about any way. Cruz may be appealing, quoting Cicero and all. But in the end, his most rapid supporters will just be muttering “Et Tu, Theodore?” At least Bush puts his cards on the table.

Stuff at City Hall

I’m starting off on what will be five weeks in Houston for Christmas break. As you may imagine, I am totally elated. For a considerable component of that time, I will be within close proximity to City Hall and everything that occurs there. Now, with the holidays and new year rapidly approaching, you might think that activities have slowed down on Bagby street, but the reality is somewhat different. Specifically, between the council discussing prospective changes to the city charter and the evident regurgitation of a fight over food truck regulation, the council looks to truly have its hands full throughout the remainder of the year.

First, the fight over charter changes marches on, as the Houston Chronicle fills us in on. Last month, I delineated the four specific issues that an ad hoc council committee recently discussed; they are 1) lifting the revenue cap, 2) amending term limits, 3) allowing closed-door meetings and 4) allowing Councilmembers to place items on the agenda. Upon first glance, I had a strongly favorable position toward the first and last suggestions, and was rather ambivalent but leaning toward opposition for the second and third. That being said, the ad hoc committee on this topic, according to the Chronicle, made a point of wanting to hold more meeting around the community regarding these topics before reaching final decisions. They have until August to decide whether or not to officially place these suggestions on the November ballot (charter changes must be approved by voters), which I fully expect them to do.

Additionally, Councilmember Michael Kubosh (R-At Large 3) made a suggestion of possibly amending the charter or engaging in some other type of direct democratic action to counteract the so-called “Homeless feeding ordinance,” which stringently regulates how individuals may feed the homeless on public land, drawing the ire of many churches and charities. The editorial board of this publication has repeatedly castigated the administration for this asinine law and has commended Kubosh’s crusade against it; I definitely hope he gets his case to bring this item before voters. Whatever your opinion of Kubosh, one must admire his ideological consistency when it comes to advocating for direct democracy above all else. Many, if not most, of his contemporaries on the horseshoe could surely learn from him on that front and many others.

Additionally, it looks as though the contentious bickering regarding food trucks may return to City Hall any day now, as Mayor Annise Parker may finally attempt to shove through regulations that largely liberalize rules on the trucks. The Houston Chronicle ran an editorial on the topic, which means this will likely be bound to come up this week.

As I noted in the past, there were a few main points that the trucks and the restaurant association clashed over, namely operating downtown, congregating together and setting up individual tables and chairs. In September, Parker unilaterally decided to allow the trucks downtown, in a move that raised eyebrows from even supporters. As I said at the time, I personally have nothing against allowing the trucks in all the business districts (specifically downtown and the medical center), especially considering they were already allowed uptown and in Greenway Plaza. However, the change in law should have been done the right way, through the council.

For the remaining suggestions, I am split. Allowing the food trucks to congregate, namely in food truck parks, is a rather straightforward suggestion that, as long as the trucks are regularly inspected, really has no drawbacks. However, I cannot say the same thing for individual tables and chairs.

The crux of proposal to reform food truck laws rests upon one simple principle: they provide a different service from restaurants. Since they are not the same as cafes and delis, the argument goes, they should be treated differently. I suppose this stands to reason, but the argument falls apart if individual tables and chairs are erected right next door. At that point, the truck turns into a pop up restaurant, and it should be treated as such.

Additionally, I couldn’t help but chuckle at some of the misleading information passed off as fact in the pertinent Chronicle editorial. The article joyously lauds the new downtown food truck park as some type of busy and successful oasis. Coincidentally enough, I had lunch with the proprietor of one of these such trucks today, and he lamented the strangely slow business out of that same food truck park. It appears that the Chronicle editorials tells the story it wants to hear, not the one that actually happens.

That being said, I do not have a dog in this fight and the resolution of this legislation is placed rather low on my list of priorities. But, like anything else at city hall, the new rules should attempt to be fair and treat the playing field evenly.

Texpatriate’s Person of the Year 2014

If one were to scour the bars of downtown Austin last year, 2014’s election would have sounded like the big one, the year when Texas Democrats would show they were truly a force to be reckoned with. At the very least, the year they continue what had been incremental progress toward competitiveness. Of course, that did not happen, as the Democratic gubernatorial nominee lost by more than any of her predecessors in this century.

But to characterize this year merely as one of Democratic failure would be a gross oversimplification, and would ignore the impressive independent successes of Republican campaigns this year. Long chastised as technologically backwater, Republicans closed the digital gaps all around the country, but especially so within Texas. Governor-elect Greg Abbott’s campaign in particular functioned as a well-oiled machine. Lamented by many as politically untested, Abbott was cautious and — for the most part — outwardly reasonable on the campaign trail (despite whatever far-right position he espoused away from television cameras).

However, caution did not permeate the entire ticket. Specifically, Lieutenant Governor-elect Dan Patrick appeared content to continue the ultra-conservative, divisive rhetoric he used to win the Republican primary, reiterating it without shame throughout the general election. In the end, he only won by marginally less than Abbott, despite such a very different strategy. Patrick, more than anyone else, embodies the current realities of Texas politics; the state is controlled, with an iron fist, by the few percent that bother to vote in Republican primaries. And Patrick echoes their voice louder and with more certainty than any of his colleagues.

Historically, lieutenant governor has been the most powerful position in the state, even more than the governor. The roles have only been reversed for the best decade or so because of a uniquely audacious governor and a strangely milquetoast lieutenant governor. But Patrick, previously a State Senator with no adversity to controversy, does not have a single timid bone in his body.

Since being elected, Patrick has exhibited no signs of slowing down his charge to change the state. He has already begun holding hearings on education matters, and a radical restructuring of the system — likely involving the extensive use of charter schools and vouchers — looks slated for the next session. With Patrick holding almost despotic power over the upper chamber, his word will carry more weight than just about anyone else.

As an editorial board, we aren’t much for Patrick’s extreme political positions. Be it education reform, guns, immigration reform or environmental factors, we disagree with him quite strongly and repudiate many, if not most, of his tactics. Throughout both his lengthy primary campaign against incumbent David Dewhurst as well as Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson & Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and general election campaign, Patrick demonstrated a working unfamiliarity with telling the truth, which earned him the honorific of “pathological liar” from one such opponent (Patterson). We endorsed his Democratic rival for lieutenant governor earlier this year in about the strongest way we knew how civilly.

But one would have to be delusional to deny the huge impact that Patrick already has, and will continue to have, on Texas politics. His defeat of Dewhurst, simultaneous with similar primary battles for Attorney General and Agriculture Commissioner, signaled a transition for control of the Texas Republican Party (and, in effect, the State of Texas). Make no mistake, the Tea Party is not a faction within the party, there are the party; and Patrick is their prince.

In the next session of the legislature, Abbott may very well play it safe and push a rather non-controversial agenda from a technocratic point of view. But no one expects Patrick to do the same. If/when the legislature passes big measures such as so-called “School Choice,” “Open Carry,” “Campus Carry,” and the end of concepts castigated as “Sanctuary Cities” or the “Texas DREAM Act,” we will have Patrick to thank/curse for it. He will quickly and hugely make his mark on Texas.

Accordingly, we denote Dan Patrick as our Texpatriate 2014 Person of the Year. Previous recipients include ANNISE PARKER (2013), LANE LEWIS (2012), ANDREW BURKS (2011), THE HOUSTON MUNICIPAL EMPLOYEE (2010) and ANNISE PARKER (2009). Criteria for recipients has changed over the years.

The Texpatriate Editorial Board is comprised of George Bailey of Boston, Noah M. Horwitz of Austin and Andrew Scott Romo of New Orleans. Editorials comprise a majority opinion of the board.