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.

Advertisements

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.

Council update 10/8

 

A few weeks ago, I noted that Mayor Annise Parker and City Attorney David Feldman were pondering pushing through a ban on types of synthetic marijuana. Today, they introduced the item to the City Council and it passed unanimously. Whereas pertinent State law only disallows the specific chemical makeup typically found in the fake cannabis, the new City law is more all-encompassing. Instead of targeting the compound, it goes after the way it is “marketed and labeled.” That’s good, but I’m concerned it might open up the law to some court challenges.

Synthetic marijuana, unlike it’s honest counterpart, has some serious health risks. Despite the name, there are few similarities in either the high you get or the health risks presented. Unlike the mellowness and avoidance of overdoses hailed as hallmarks of cannabis, the effects of synthetic marijuana are far more similar to that of amphetamines. Lasting brain damage can occur. Forbes Magazine has an article that explains the plethora of individuals who have fatally overdosed on the substance. Perhaps the most compelling reason for the legalization of marijuana is that, since the beginning of time, zero people have fatally OD-ed on it. Obviously, the same is not true with the synthetic substances, prompting a rationale for prohibiting its use even when he are liberalizing drug laws in other ways.

“It is an epidemic, it is the fastest growing drug of choice across the United States and it is many, many, many times more potent than natural marijuana and, in fact, it has no relation to marijuana other than it stimulates some of the same receptors in the body,” Parker told the Chronicle. “It can cause stupor, but it can also cause aggression and agitation, and it’s causing a lot of concern across the community.”

Otherwise, as the Houston Chronicle also notes, most of the buzz surrounding City Hall today involved numerous proposals for amending the City Charter. The four specific changes floated, which could see a ballot — if at all — either next May or next November, are as follows: lifting the revenue cap on property taxes, amending term limit rules, allowing secret meetings of the Council and allowing a gaggle of Councilmembers to propose agenda items.

The revenue cap is an issue that came up over the summer but has predominantly fallen out of the news recently. At issue is a decade-old, voter-approved ceiling on the amount of property taxes raised. Simply put, despite controls of growth and inflation, it simply has not kept up. Because of the cap, rates for homeowners will effectively fall in the coming years –which is indubitably a good thing. But the city will be constrained and will, even in a good economy, be compelled to return to slashing services. It’s a lose-lose proposition, and one that will be bitterly hard to fight. All in all, I think the cap should be lifted, but it’s hard to imagine a majority of the low-turnout municipal electorate agreeing.

Next is the oft-repeated proposal to amend term limit laws. Currently, the Mayor, City Controller and City Council are all limited by three two-year terms. The proposal touted by the Mayor would change this to two four-year terms; I don’t know how it would affect incumbent officeholders, and how many more years they could serve if the proposal is adopted.

Now, most of the arguments in support of term limit reform fall on deaf ears for me. While I’m ambivalent about the whole idea of limiting how many terms a legislator (which a City Councilmember effectively is) can serve, I am a vociferous advocate of frequent elections. The proposal would quite literally make these officeholders accountable to the public half as often, breaking from the tradition set by the lower House of both Congress and the State Legislature. While advocates of it may whine about the stresses put on politicians, I simply do not give a care. Their concerns are subservient to the concerns of their constituents.

Particularly with the increasingly erratic electorate that selects members of the City Council, obstructive Councilmembers are becoming more and more frequent. Former City Councilmembers Helena Brown (R-District A) and Andrew Burks (D-At Large 2) are two sterling examples of this phenomenon. If they were elected under Parker’s proposal, they would still be around doing all that they did at Council meetings. Need I say more?

Third, a proposal has been floated to allow the Houston City Council to meet more in private. Parker and Feldman, I recall, made a similar push a few years ago, but received criticism from the Councilmembers. The two now-former CMs who opposed the strongest, however, Al Hoang (R-District F) and James Rodriguez (D-District I), are no longer on the Council. I have always been bitterly opposed to closed-door sessions such as these, in principle as well as practice. When my father ran for the City Council last year, I even encouraged him to record an advertisement deriding the proposal.

Last, but certainly not least, is a proposal by City Councilmember C.O. Bradford (D-At Large 4) to allow for a coalition of at least six Councilmembers to proposal agenda items. Currently, only the Mayor can make proposals on the agenda. To this, the Mayor appeared absolutely opposed; I can’t say I’m surprised, she has acted almost imperial unilateral with her power recently.

A few months ago, when I spoke to former Congressman Chris Bell, a likely Mayoral contender for 2015, he also expressed support for allowing the Council to influence the agenda. All in all, I tend to think individual Councilmembers should be able to introduce items, but I suppose that just goes against the spirit of the strong-Mayor system.

What do you think about this proposals? How about the synthetic pot ban?

Food trucks now allowed downtown

The Houston Chronicle reports that Mayor Annise Parker has, by executive fiat, lifted the ban on propane-fueled food trucks operating downtown (and in the Texas Medical Center). Citing a recent opinion by the Fire Marshall, who noted that there are not any real dangers for them operating, Parker unilaterally made the decision. In years past, Parker has pushed for a few changes in food truck policy, but the City Council has always been extraordinarily tepid.

Like I explained last month, this decision comes on the heels of a proposed expansive revamp of food truck ordinances. After receiving some pushback from the Council, Parker delayed it. The Chronicle article notes it should be brought back up with a vengeance at some point in October. Observers of Houston politics will note that this has become the signature political move of the Mayor, re-introducing slightly different proposals over and over again until a beaten down Council assents to her will. I suppose this is a benefit of a Strong-Mayor system of government, and I think most politicians would do the same.

The Council-proposal would namely allow food trucks to congregate close together and eliminate a ban on individual tables and chairs. There are also some concerns about the super stringent safety regulations that the trucks must follow. Councilmembers Brenda Stardig (R-District A) and Robert Gallegos (D-District I), respectively, were noted by the Chronicle as somewhat vociferous critics. Gallegos in particular made some really apt comments.

“I’m not opposed to food trucks,” Gallegos told the Chronicle. “But I’m not talking about food trucks outside of bars on Washington Avenue. I’m talking about little hole-in-the-wall cantinas and whether the trucks there are going to be regulated. That’s a problem to me.”

Parker announced the unilateral change Friday afternoon, and I didn’t have time to do any research on this before end of business. I’m planning on calling a few Council offices tomorrow and will update if I receive some meaningful comments.

Just as I argued last month, my thoughts on food trucks are somewhat complicated. For far too long, the most heated critics of food trucks, such as former Councilmember Andrew Burks (D-At Large 2), employed exceedingly bizarre and lousy talking points. Fears about exploding propane tanks or terrorists using the trucks are largely unfounded. Yes, food trucks have blown up before. But so have restaurants. Especially considering that the trucks were already allowed in the high-density uptown and Greenway Plaza districts, I just don’t see any legitimate reason to oppose the trucks entrance into downtown. That being said, it was wholly inappropriate for Parker to go about it like this. I’ll let the attorneys argue about the legality (my guess is that Parker had a right to do this), but doing something by executive order when your legislature is unwilling always smells wrong to me. I don’t like it when the President does it, and I don’t like it when the Mayor does it.

Similarly, I don’t have an issue with the food trucks congregating. Food truck parks are neat creations that serve Austin well, and would be a welcome addition to more areas in Houston. But the ban on individual tables and chairs for the trucks make sense. If you park a truck and set up your tables and chairs, you turn into a pop-up restaurant. Simply put, given the strict regulations that restaurants must obey, it is unacceptable to allow the less-regulated trucks to provide the same service.

Food trucks claim they provide a different service from restaurants, and therefore should be regulated differently. That’s fine, but in order for this reality to work, the trucks actually have to act differently from restaurants. This means moving around and not providing on-site eating options unless it is part of a larger collective.

That being said, most people do not really care too much about equity in restaurant ordinances. Gallegos’ comments provide the most compelling case for preserving the super strict safety requirements the trucks must follow. For many inside-the-loop liberals, their only interaction with mobile eateries is in the form of glitzy mini-buses zooming around Montrose. But the laws also cover less glamorous vehicles, namely in some of the poorer districts. When the Council finally discusses this, I really hope those concerns are addressed well.

As for me, I’m walking to a food truck park in Austin for lunch.

Off the Kuff has more.

Food Truck fight!

On Wednesday, the Houston City Council’s Quality of Life Committee began deliberating reforms of food truck laws. The Houston Chronicle’s Editorial Board was one of the first entities to truly cover the process, while Miya Shay at KTRK provided a much more extensive and evenhanded account of the issue. As best as I have understood, proposed reforms center around whether or not to allow propane-based food trucks in Downtown and the Texas Medical Center, as well as relaxing restrictions on how close they may congregate and prop up tables and chairs. I have placed calls to officials on both sides of this issue, in an attempt to understand this issue further.

Furthermore, the Houston Chronicle reported that, following Wednesday’s contentious committee hearing, Mayor Annise Parker announced that she would be unilaterally changing the pertinent regulations regarding food trucks downtown, though she would still try to push through Council-approved fixes on the other topics.

As best as I can figure out, this topic will be on the agenda at the next City Council meeting. Coming on the wheels of the super contentious Vehicles-for-Hire fight earlier in this same month (which itself followed the non-discrimination ordinance by only one week), Mayor Annise Parker has continued attempting to pass a large chunk of radical policy reforms. Love her or hate her, everyone should be impressed by just how much she has been able to accomplish, and will undoubtedly continue to accomplish (in the Strong-Mayor system used in Houston, the Mayor almost always gets her way). However, the key difference that I have been able to find is that the Mayor sought more of a consensus on the topics. The once-controversial Wage Theft ordinance passed unanimously, and the Payday Lending reform ordinance passed with only two dissensions. On the other hand, the NDO and the Vehicles-for-Hire fights were bitterly fought over and left many with bad feelings.

I have historically been broadly supportive of food trucks, as most astute followers of this publication might remember. Opponents of the proposed reforms have typically been a little slow in getting their valid objections out there, and the mainstream press has harped on the silliest statements ever made by Council opposition,. The Chronicle editorial not once, but twice, mentioned the outlandish tirades that former Councilmember Andrew Burks went on against food trucks, suggesting (among other things) that the propane tanks downtown could be used for terrorist activity. I stand by my assertions that strange comments are unbecoming of a public servant, but they shouldn’t be used to justify a position one way or another on this issue.

Something to remember on this issue is that food trucks are not a monolith. Food trucks should not be all assumed to be the cute, glitzy vehicles zooming around Montrose that so many simply assume them to be. They can also be unsafe, dirty deathtraps, typically situated in poorer neighborhoods. They need very stringent safety inspections, perhaps even more stringent than brick-and-mortar restaurants. But, as far as I can tell, the proposed changes do not deal with safety violations.

As for the propane tanks in densely populated areas, I am still skeptical of the regulation being sound. The facts are still out on the idea that trucks in densely populated areas are dangerous. There was, for example, a terrible tragedy out of Philadelphia last month involving an exploding food truck that killed two people. But restaurants deal with plenty of dangers too, and they have been prone to burning down every once in a while. However, as the Chronicle article repeatedly mentions, the trucks are allowed Uptown and in Greenway Plaza, other high density areas. Like any other issue, I think there should be some consistency. Ideally, that would be strengthening safety standards for the propane tanks, including regular inspection, then letting the trucks into the neighborhoods.

As for some of the other proposals, I still have not completely made up my mind. I am, however, an opponent of allowing individual tables and chairs for the specific food trucks. I do like and support the so-called “Food Truck parks,” in which community tables and chairs are shared among a plethora of trucks. But if individual furniture is used, the truck transforms into a pop-up restaurant.

Just like the Uber/Lyft debate, I am a big believer in everyone providing the same service abiding by the same regulations (Editorial note: Horwitz formerly contracted with the Clifford Group, a public relations firm that counted Yellow Cab among its clients. I have no dog in this fight, though). Restaurants must follow some pretty onerous restrictions, namely for public safety and health reasons. I can understand the idea that a restaurant and a food truck could plausibly provide different services, but not if the latter allowed “dine-in” service. You can’t have it both ways.

Personally,  I am sick and tired of people comparing this issue to the Vehicle-for-Hire spat. There are some big differences, chief among them is that food trucks are not what I would call a “disruptor” into the restaurant industry in the same way. Food trucks, be it the Eatsie Boys or Bernie’s Burger Bus, have taken the next step and become restaurants on many occasions. I don’t think Uber or Lyft want to one day shift to the same business model as Yellow Cab. Furthermore, food trucks have not been operating downtown or doing other things that so openly and cavalierly violate the City of Houston’s ordinances. Call me old fashioned, but Uber’s incessant and gleeful lawbreaking is what sent me other the edge originally. The integrity of laws is important.

That is why I am bitterly opposed to the Mayor’s irresponsible decision to go around City Council on this issue. The Mayor, for all its power, is not a tyrant.

Texpatriate’s List of Best and Worst Councilmembers

Back in June, this board came out with a list of the Best and Worst Legislators of the 83rd State Legislature. The list was largely modeled after what Texas Monthly has been doing after sine die for now 40 years. But nobody –at least nowadays– does lists of best and worst members of the City Council; we felt it was time to change all of that.

Theoretically, this list should cover the entire term from the beginning of 2012 to the present, but it is admittedly heavily biased in favor of the actions taken by Councilmembers this year alone, given the recent inception of this board as an institution. That being said, we attempted to use a rather well-rounded method to distinguish the good from the bad. Additionally, given the unmatched power that the Mayor holds at City Hall in unilaterally setting the agenda, dissent is sometimes conflated with obstinate obstructionism. Again, this board has tried its best to separate the emotions and intentions of a Councilmember’s act of disobedience from the breakaway itself.

Much like our June list of Legislators, we have included (ranked) the three best City Councilmembers and the three worst City Councilmembers. Additionally, like Texas Monthly, we have included a further category for the quintessential bellwether. In Monthly, it is referred to as the “Bull of the Brazos,” a politician whom “the line between a scoundrel and a statesman can be hammered too thin to recognize.” We will call it the “Bull of the Bagby,” a whimsical reference to Bagby Street, the location of City Hall. Further, we will also grade the City leadership with a letter grade. Since this board includes a student of Harvard University, considering the recent attention, we have worked very hard to combat any “grade inflation” that Texpatriate may engage in. Not everyone gets “A”s, nor should everyone, so an imperfect mark is not intended to be construed as a sign of failure within this exercise.

This board also entertained the idea of given out some sort of distinction similar to Monthly‘s “furniture” designation, which denotes the lawmakers who participated at similar levels as their desks and chairs. However, we eventually decided such a label would be too harsh for any of the Councilmembers, considering we are now without the likes of a Jolanda Jones, who was notorious for playing hookey.

We know many will disagree with our rationale, some possibly strongly. We invite those to address our hypothetically-alleged shortcomings when they publish their own list of Best and Worst City Councilmembers. This board looks forward to them with great zeal, especially the Houston Chronicle’s.

Accordingly, we present, our list:

Click here to read our list!

Payday Lending ordinance passed

Scroll to the bottom to read about Councilmember Rodriguez’s blowup on Twitter against three Chronicle writers, Texpatriate and Noah M. Horwitz

The Houston Chronicle reports that the Payday Lending ordinance, which has been kicked around at the City Council for a few weeks now, has been passed by the City Council in a lopsided vote of 15-2. The strong majority support placated fears that the ordinance would be delayed into next year’s session, complete with a City Council riddled with new (and sometimes unpredictable) individuals.

The ordinance requires payday lenders to register with the City, provide contracts in easy-to-read and straightforward language, limits the amount of a loan and places strict restrictions on the number of times a loan may be refinanced. While a cap on interest is omitted, the ordinance has some real teeth and is noticeably stronger than that initially proposed by the Mayor. It is worth saying that the Mayor has received some pretty generous contributions from Payday Lending PACs over the years, so the new hefty ordinance is a nice precedent to set that you must not always be a slave to who has given you money.

Among some of the ordinance’s detractors were those who believed it was overkill –though still acknowledged something needed to be done. They were led by Councilmember Jack Christie, who proposed an amendment that would have largely gutted the provisions of the act. The amendment garnered six votes, including Andrew Burks, C.O. Bradford and Dave Martin.  While all of these individuals gave long pontifications against the regulations earlier, they all ultimately voted in favor. Helena Brown –the dependable ‘no’ vote– and James Rodriguez were the only dissenting voices in the final tally.

Click here to read about Rodriguez’s Twitter temper-tantrum!