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.

Is Ben Hall running as a joke?

The Houston Chronicle reports that former City Attorney Ben Hall, who recently announced his intent to run for Mayor yet again, has released his second radio ad, nearly a full year ahead of the election. The ad features fictional characters, named “The Harrison’s,” debating Houston politics and lamenting Hall’s previous untruths, complete with a jingle and everything. I’m serious.

The 60-second spot, which you can find at this link, features a fictional African-American couple, initially complaining about the end of this most recent election, debating the merits of Hall’s second candidacy. The husband, later identified as George Harrison, thinks he sounds “so sincere” this time, but his wife, Christine Harrison, made a point of noting Hall’s dishonesty in the most recent election. She brings up his broken promise on holding community meetings. Then, the ad just throws a bunch of stuff at the wall and hopes some of it sticks. Specifically, Mr Harrison makes a point of bringing up “Subpoena-gate,” when Mayor Annise Parker’s administration foolishly tried to subpoena sermons by anti-LGBT clergy as part of the discovery process in the lawsuit against the non-discrimination ordinance.

I don’t even know where to begin with this one. Perhaps Hall thinks that humility could be an asset, but it just doesn’t work like that. Just ask Jerry Springer how well admitting your mistakes work. Generally speaking, if you make up fictional characters in a commercial, your level of support among them should be just about unanimous. Not 50%. Like his myriad of campaign blunders the last time around, Hall appears to just micromanaging his campaign away from any semblance of logic and reason.

Perhaps even more than the last time around, Hall appears willing to spend a considerable sum of money on his delusional dream of getting elected Mayor. I think it’s safe to say that he will never, ever be the Mayor, which begs the question as to why he is trying so hard. I suppose he could be testing the waters rather hard now, so that he could abort his candidacy by the spring if things do not appear to be causing much traction. But that’s just my guess.

The significantly more problematic side effect of Hall’s candidacy could be playing spoiler to the candidacy of State Representative Sylvester Turner (D-Harris County). Hall could arguably split the African-American support with Turner. And while Turner, the arguable frontrunner of the race, has a rather broad coalition, he could rely greatly on that demographic if his intention is to win next November without a runoff.

What do you think of Hall’s new ad?

Texas Senate changes

The Texas Tribune reports that Comptroller-elect Glenn Hegar, also a member of the State Senate, has resigned his seat in anticipation of assuming high office. Governor Rick Perry has called a special election for December 6th, which will likely have to be resolved by a runoff election some point after the 84th Legislative session convenes at the start of next year.

The three candidates for the State Senate district, which stretches from Katy (Hegar’s hometown) to Corpus Christi to the outskirts of Austin (map here), include Gary Gates and Charles Gregory of Fort Bend County as well as State Representatives Lois Kolkhorst (R-Washington County). Needless to say, the huge district will continue to be dominated by its Greater Houston subdivision. No Democrats have, at print time, announced their interest in the district, and it is not outside the realm of possibility that none will run (the last time the district held an election, in 2012, Hegar ran unopposed).

Perhaps the bigger piece of news is some convincing evidence that State Senator Leticia Van de Putte (D-Bexar County), this year’s unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor, will in fact resign her senate seat to run for Mayor of San Antonio. I went over most of the odds-and-ends involving this possibility last week, when I emphatically opined against the decision. Selfishly, I think Van de Putte could continue being an asset for Democrats in this state as an articulate and highly-visible leader of the opposition against Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick in the next session.

The source for this is Robert Miller, a lobbyist in Houston who has a history of breaking these types of stories via Twitter. The tweets were immediately confirmed by former staffers of Van de Putte. Miller, as you may remember, correctly pointed to Wendy Davis running for Governor in August of last year (Back when I thought she would only lose by eight-to-ten points, how naive of me).

With Van de Putte out, another special election would have to be called. The Houston Chronicle has suggested that both State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer and State Representative Jose Menendez, both San Antonio Democrats, would throw their hats in the ring to succeed Van de Putte in heavily gerrymandered (for the Democrats) district. Meanwhile, State Representative Mike Villarreal (D-Bexar County), who recently resigned his House seat to run for Mayor of San Antonio, may still end up switching races.

The San Antonio Express-News has a great profile out that discusses the “friction” between Van de Putte and Villarreal. In 1999, Villarreal had succeeded Van de Putte in the State House when she was first elected to the senate, defeated her hand-picked successor in the process. Ever since, the relationship has been tense. Accordingly, the two might have a nasty campaign ahead of them, though I would think Van de Putte (the only statewide Democrat to carry Bexar County) would be heavily favored.

But the optics about candidates and what not can wait until we have more information. Perry and Governor-elect Greg Abbott, when he takes office, are just petty enough to purposefully drag their feet on a special election to ensure the Democrats start the session with one fewer voice, short of the 1/3 needed to block legislation. Although, as I have previously mentioned, the 2/3rds rule is likely doomed anyways.

Off the Kuff has more (regarding Hegar).

Hall 2.0

I will preface all my remarks with a full confession that, once upon a time, I greatly respected Ben Hall, the former City Attorney, as a politician of honor and integrity. In fact, about two years ago, when he first announced his candidacy in the 2013 Mayoral election and made his first appearance on this publication, I noted that “in an open election, I probably would have supported Ben Hall.”

Over the next year, Hall ran what could generously be called the worst campaign I have ever bared witness to in municipal politics. He was scattered, dishonest and unnecessarily abrasive. I strongly urge you to read through some of my archives tagged under “Ben Hall,” and you will find someone whose patience grows thinner and thinner as time went on. Hall spent a 12 month campaign without bringing up any concrete issues. He merely spoke in broad platitudes, or with unsubstantiated claims about his opponent, Mayor Annise Parker. The few times that he did open his mouth, Hall sometimes contradicted himself, such as his hypocrisy on a proposed non-discrimination ordinance.

Hall’s campaign was also marred by myriad controversies involving his integrity. The Parker camp honed in on Hall’s nasty little problem with not paying his taxes, while Sophia Arena and I published a lengthy exposé on some other conflicts of interest in the past. Simply put, when Hall announced today that he would run for Mayor again next year in the open election, and would immediately begin running radio ads (as reported by the Houston Chronicle), I was not pleased, to say the least.

Hall joins an already crowded list of prospective mayoral candidates, including but not limited to State Representative Sylvester Turner (D-Harris County), former Congressman Chris Bell, Sheriff Adrian Garcia, METRO Chairman Gilbert Garcia, former Kemah Mayor Bill King and City Councilmembers Stephen Costello (R-At Large 1), Jack Christie (R-At Large 5), Oliver Pennington (R-District G) and Ed Gonzalez (D-District H).

In Hall’s 60-second radio spot, triumphant music plays as he narrates. “Last year I promised to have a conversation with you about the things we needed to do to improve our city,” he says. “Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.”

Hall’s ad appears to glance past the fact that he chose to ignore those important issues, and he spends about the next 50 seconds speaking once again in broad platitudes. The one exception, however, is getting in a cheap shot about “Subpoena-gate,” when the mayor’s office made a bone-headed decision to go after the sermons of pastors who railed against the non-discrimination ordinance. As I referenced above, Hall has — at one time — both supported and opposed that ordinance. Ambiguous banalities aren’t doing much to clear up the confusion.

In other news, HCC Trustee Carroll Robinson officially announced his candidacy for City Controller. Robinson, a former member of the City Council, already has a great deal of community support. His likely competitors will be Dwight Jefferson (current METRO Board member and former District Judge) and Bill Frazer (an unsuccessful 2013 candidate).

Dewhurst for Mayor?

The Houston Chronicle reports that Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, who leaves office this January after a dozen years in office, is thinking about running for Mayor of Houston next year.

“I ain’t riding off into the sunset, ever,” Dewhurst told the Chronicle. “I’m a real believer in the Lord’s will, and He’s got something else He wants me to do, and so I’m pursuing what I think is good for me and good for the state.”

Dewhurst, who was defeated for re-election by Lieutenant Governor-elect Dan Patrick earlier this year, must think the third time is the charm. Before being defeated for re-election, he ran for the US Senate in 2012 when Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison retired. Despite being the odds-on favorite for most of the campaign, Ted Cruz won an unexpected, grassroots-based victory over him and succeeded Hutchison in the Senate.

Speaking of next year’s mayoral candidates, another name has popped up since I last profiled the plethora of pretenders to the throne, so to speak. Bill King, the former Mayor of Kemah and a longtime columnist for the Houston Chronicle, is now telling people behind the scenes that he will toss his hat in the ring. King has always been a nice guy with noble ambitions, but many of his Chronicle columns were sometimes just silly. Every single week he would repeat the same trite points about how it was absolutely necessary to gleefully crush public sector pensions or else Houston would turn into Detroit. I tend to agree that something needs to be done in the budgetary department, but the points lose their ripeness the fourth time they are iterated in a month. Additionally, being the Mayor of multiple cities (when they do not merge) just makes me uncomfortable, similar to Scott Brown’s ill-fated run for the Senate in New Hampshire this year.

Back to Dewhurst, I’m not sure how much financial support he could muster, though he is independently wealthy enough to self-finance. Moderate Republicans already have a gaggle of affluent White men competing for their support, and I’m not really convinced that Dewhurst fills any unfilled niche.

And, to bring up the obvious point, Republicans will not likely win the Mayor’s office this next election. Houston is and continues to be a ferociously liberal city. It has not elected a Republican Mayor since the 1970s, and 2015 certainly does not look to be the exception to the rule.

Additionally, though Dewhurst deep down is rather moderate and likely doesn’t care much for social issues, that side of him has been all but eviscerated in two statewide Republican primaries dominated by the Tea Party. The Republicans running for Mayor this year either openly disagree with their party on issues such as gay marriage and abortion, such as City Councilmember Stephen Costello (R-At Large 1), or prioritize other issues, such as City Councilmember Oliver Pennington (R-District G). If Houston doesn’t elect Republicans, we most definitely do not elect socially conservative Republicans. Not in 1985, not today.

San Antonio mayoral update

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As the astute will recall, Julian Castro, the longtime Mayor of San Antonio, left his post over the summer in order to become the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in Washington. The San Antonio City Council settled on Ivy Taylor, one of their own, to serve as the interim Mayor until the next regularly scheduled general election in May 2015. One of the reasons for her appointment was that she strongly hinted that she would not run herself next year. This has prompted a wide open field for those interested to take the helm at the country’s seventh biggest city.

If you are left wondering exactly what relevance this has to state politics, the growing list of prospective candidates should clear things up. In addition to a couple of incumbent City Councilmembers, namely Ray Lopez and Ron Nirenberg, names with statewide followings have either already tossed their hats or are thinking intently about the subject.

First up, State Representative Mike Villarreal (D-Bexar County), who has been openly running for Mayor since the summer, announced today that he would be resigning his legislative seat shortly in order to fully focus on the election as well as allow Governor Rick Perry to call a special election as early as December. The Texas Tribune has the full story on that.

Not to be outdone, the San Antonio Express-News reports that State Senator Leticia Van de Putte (D-Bexar County) is now also seriously considering a mayoral bid. Back in July, when this subject first came up, she unequivocally denied the rumor. “Under no circumstance will I be running for Mayor of San Antonio,” she told the Express-News at the time. Van de Putte, the Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor who was handed a 19 point loss last Tuesday, appears to have now had a change of heart.

“Recently, many business and community leaders have asked me to play a new role in service to San Antonio, as Mayor,” Van de Putte tweeted. “I am humbled by their confidence and support. At this time, I am enjoying my family and praying for guidance.”

Van de Putte, the only statewide Democrat to carry Bexar County, is immensely popular in her hometown. If she chose to run, the contest would immediately be transformed into her race to lose. And while she wouldn’t necessarily have to resign her State Senate seat for the run, if it became apparent that she would likely be victorious, an expeditious resignation and succeeding special election would probably occur. Expect individuals such as Villarreal to seriously consider switching to the State Senate race in that case.

Now, I think Van de Putte would make a phenomenal Mayor. She would serve the people of San Antonio competently and courageously. But, selfishly, I desperately do not want her to run, and do not want her to leave the Legislature. Van de Putte, as the individual who went head-to-head with Lieutenant Governor-elect Dan Patrick, would be in a unique position to serve as a bombastic and effective Leader of the Opposition next session. Now that Wendy Davis, Tuesday’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate, will no longer be in the legislature, Van de Putte has the best name recognition of any Democratic State Legislator. If Democrats lose her too, they will be seriously lacking in the brain trust department.

Additionally, if the 2/3rds rule is preserved in any way, shape or form, the Democrats will only be able to use it if they stay completely unified. Van de Putte’s resignation would only leave 10 Democratic Senators, one short of the requisite third. Of course, Patrick will likely do away with this tradition altogether, making this worry a moot point.

Perhaps Van de Putte sees the writing on the wall. Conventional wisdom was that Van de Putte could perhaps run a competitive — even successful — statewide bid in 2018, but the shellacking that Texas Democrats experienced this cycle likely put those aspirations to bed. I’m sure some pundits more crass than myself will make a variation of the “rats jumping off a sinking ship” joke.

Make no mistake, the loss of Van de Putte from the State Senate would be a devastating blow for Democrats in the state; indeed, it would be debilitating for all those Texans not looking forward to Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s reign of terror.

Local odds and ends

In the days following the general election, a number of major actions have occurred at the local level. I’ve fallen a little bit behind, so instead of devoting separate posts to all of them, I will try to recap them altogether, since they all have a broadly City-related theme.

First, on Thursday, Judge Lisa Millard of the 310th (Family) District Court put yet another temporary restraining order on the City’s plan to offer full spousal benefits to same-sex spouses of city employees. The Houston Chronicle has outlined the full, nearly year-long, story on that front. Simply put, after Mayor Annise Parker announced the policy about a year ago, Millard placed a TRO on the matter. This, despite the fact that Millard is a Family judge and this case, concerning the constitutionality of a municipal regulation, undoubtedly belongs in a Civil District court (where most of the Judges are Democrats).

At the beginning of this year, the TRO was lifted after the case was moved into Federal Court. Although that Judge, Lee Rosenthal, later determined in August that the case need not be in Federal Court, a separate countersuit that resulted in a Federal holding in favor of the policy still stands. Accordingly, I’m confused as to what authority Millard has to contradict a Federal Judge. The constitution, which this case is ostensibly all about, is fairly clear about the supremacy of the Federal Government over the States. That’s Article VI, Clause II, for those of you playing at home.

If I had to make a guess, I would think that the Feds will once again step in and take this issue out of Millard’s hands. Short of that, I would not be surprised if a higher-up state court tosses this case into the Civil District benches. It is just wholly inappropriate for a judge who oversees divorces and the like to be prognosticating issues like the constitutionality of municipal policies. This is a bad decision from a bad judge, one who was unfortunately re-elected on Tuesday (unopposed as well, adding insult to injury).

The state of Texas’ constitution does clearly note that no subdivision of the state (such as a city) may recognize same-sex marriages. Accordingly, on its face, this policy does have some problems. But what Parker and City Attorney David Feldman argued has been that the US Supreme Court, in its 2013 decision United States v. Windsor, compels Houston to recognize such unions.

The second item of news is that the Parker administration has officially denied a petition effort to compel a referendum on the contentious “Homeless feeding” ordinance. Once again, Mike Morris and Katherine Driessen have the full story on that, over at the Houston Chronicle.

Way back in the spring of 2012, before this publication was even in existence, Parker and a bare-bones majority of the City Council passed a frustratingly silly ordinance that banned the sharing of food with homeless people on public land. Rightly so, the public was appalled by this asinine micromanagement, and an effort went underway to collect signature on a petition to force a referendum. In August 2012, the petitions were submitted, and then the waiting game began. More than a year later, one of the main drivers of this petition effort, Michael Kubosh, was elected to the City Council. Since taking office, he has reminded the administration nearly every week that he expected a decision on this petition effort.

Thursday afternoon, he got his answer, as the city officially denied the petitions. Much like the brouhaha over the Non-discrimination ordinance, nearly double the required minimum signatures were submitted, but half of them were denied. More specifically, about 35,000  names were given, but only about 17,500 were validated, short of the 19,000 required to force a referendum.

Kubosh, for his part, remained cordial and optimistic about the future. He told the Chronicle “I don’t want to have to accept it, but I’ll have to accept it and we’ll just have to figure out what to do next.”

First of all, from a political point of view, kudos to the Mayor’s office for waiting until after the election to wade into this controversial issue. Restraint and political acumen heralded the day here, unlike whatever “bonehead” in the legal department issued those unfortunate subpoenas to pastors regarding the NDO.

I always have been, and continue to be, a steadfast opponent of the ordinance. Criminalizing the sharing of food is just never a good strategy when it comes to the public relations battle, as national stories continue to suggest. If this would have come up for a vote, it would have gone down in flames.

Last, and probably least, there is yet another article in the Houston Chronicle that deals with a second lawsuit filed against the city’s fundraising rules regarding municipal candidates. As many will recall, former Congress Chris Bell, a likely Mayoral candidate, filed a state suit over the rules last month. This time, Trebor Gordon, a past and future candidate for the City Council, is challenging the rules in Federal court.

Gordon’s argument is that the fundraising ban before February 1st violates the First Amendment, as well as spirits of fairness given that elected officials in other offices can still raise money for their incumbent position, then transfer the money to their municipal accounts after February 1st. This is the key complaint of Bell, pointed toward State Representative Sylvester Turner (D-Harris County), the current arguable frontrunner.

“These exceptions codify a shocking bias toward incumbents and the political elite,” said Gordon’s attorney, Jerad Nevjar.

The article doesn’t note which position Gordon will run for, but I have to assume it’s at-large again. He ran a rather levelheaded campaign in 2013, but fell off the deep end earlier this year when talk of the NDO arose. He eventually blocked me and other social liberals from his Facebook after we took exception to his constant homophobic actions, including repeatedly linking homosexuality with bestiality and pedophilia. Now, Gordon notes that he was inspired to run again because of the aforementioned subpoena scandal.

I agree with him that the subpoenas were a poor choice, and I certainly agree that the fundraising rules are wrong — if not unconstitutional. But perhaps he is not the best messenger.