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?

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).

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.

Don’t let the door hit you!

Editorial note: Noah M. Horwitz is not currently employed or contracting with any entities designating a conflict of interest on this topic.

The Houston Chronicle reports that Lyft, the popular taxi service based off of an app, will be ending its services in Houston just days before new laws go into effect regulating its operation. Since February, Lyft has operated illegally in Houston; however, Mayor Annise Parker’s administration tolerated the lawbreaking because she was sympathetic to their proposed changes to the vehicle-for-hire industry, along with those of their chief rival, Uber. In August, the City Council approved regulations largely accommodating Uber and Lyft into the marketplace. Technically, Lyft is still operating illegally, since the new rules do not go into effect until next week.

One of the provisions in the new law is that drivers for these so-called Transportation Network Companies (TNCs), such as Uber and Lyft, can abstain from city-mandated background checks (ones that involve fingerprinting) for up to 30 days. This was done at the behest of Lyft lobbyists, as Uber doesn’t have a problem with these fingerprinting background checks. Now, Lyft is threatening to leave Houston unless the meager background provision is eviscerated entirely.

Lyft claims they do their own background checks, and that they are superior. Of course, from a municipal regulator’s point of view, I don’t see how secret checks could be evaluated or trusted; we are a little old to use the honor system for something like this. And given that Uber has no problem with the fingerprint background checks, it is obvious that this business model can sustain these types of checks.

Supporters of Lyft showed up en masse at City Hall today and attempted to lobby the City Council into relaxing the rules. Miya Shay, a reporter for KTRK, tweeted a picture of them loitering in the hallway. Personally, if there are people who are this vehement in opposing fingerprint background checks, they honestly freak me out a little bit.

From what I have heard, City Councilmembers are somewhat unenthusiastic about changing the rules, with some of them even pestered by this whole idea. Given how hard they fought over the rules this summer, I doubt many representatives — or the Mayor, for that matter — want to revisit this divisive issue. Additionally, even most of the tribalistic supporters of TNCs could probably not care less about this issue. If Uber is the favorite son of the new entrants into vehicles-for-hire, Lyft is the red-headed stepchild.

You know my overall opinion on TNCs, but I would hope that everyone could be behind background checks that include fingerprints. The risks are just too high otherwise. For the safety of everyone, the Council should stand firm on this issue.

Subpoenas droppped

Yesterday, Mayor Annise Parker finally agreed the drop the controversial subpoenas issued against clergy for supposed comments made regarding the recent Non-discrimination ordinance. I talked up this issue somewhat thoroughly a couple weeks ago when the subpoenas were first issued, so I do not think I will get into weeds of all that again.

First, the Parker administration narrowed the scope of the subpoenas to explicitly make the point that they wished to only cover topics directly related to the petition effort against the NDO, not any broad topics on the underlying issues. Still receiving derision from across the country, Parker and City Attorney David Feldman relented and dropped the subpoenas. However, as the Houston Chronicle noted today, religious and conservative leaders are still up in arms about the actions.

Litigators and others with some familiarity between the city and those religious leaders bringing suit against the city (please see previous post for more on that) will know that these subpoenas are fairly routine parts of the discovery process in a lawsuit. However, the ultra-religious, ironically those preaching hellfire and damnation against some others most obstreperously, are remarkably gifted at feigning outrage and phony persecution. If you ever dare to suggest that Churches stop impeding upon the state, they scream persecution and “War on Christmas” and all that hyperbolic silliness. Nick Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist at the Chronicle, illustrated this very point better than I could write on it.

But, separate from what is legally correct, this whole issue was politically wrong. Actually, that’s an understatement, it was a political atrocity. Parker succeeded in awakening the angry conservative masses that had finally subsided following the “Summer of HERO.” She succeeded even in bringing attention to this delicate issue from all across the country. And the annoying way that the issue was fumbled led even left-of-center outlets to react skeptically to this whole production.

Make no mistake, a referendum will still probably be held on this ordinance. When that day comes, because of the Parker administration’s trigger-happy maneuvering, the contest to save the NDO will be even more uphill. National Republican groups will pour in money against the ordinance. And negative campaigns against Democrats have already started  by dredging up this issue.

I am still a steadfast supporter of this ordinance, which is what makes seeing this boondoggle unfold is all the more troubling. The most vociferous opponents against the NDO engage in slimy tactics; the proponents, particularly those in City Hall, should not sink to that level.

Parker subpoenas pastors

On Tuesday, the Houston Chronicle noted that Mayor Annise Parker and City Attorney David Feldman have subpoenaed the sermons of prominent pastors who have been a part of ongoing petition efforts against the local non-discrimination ordinance. The NDO, passed last May, prevents discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion and other distinguishing features, as well as sexual orientation and gender identity. Those last two qualities garnered a great deal of controversy both before and after the Houston City Council passed the measure, even prompting a petition drive to force a referendum.

In a still controversial decision, city leaders disqualified most of the signatures provided, saying not enough valid voices signed against the ordinance to compel a referendum. Since then, litigation has been pending and a referendum is still quite possible in the future. I suppose that the city is now trying to cover its behind by proving many of the tactics exhibited by these pastors, who are legally required to remain apolitical, have been unlawful.

On Wednesday, however, Parker distanced herself from the subpoenas, calling them “overly broad” and regretting the incident was handled the way it was. As they likely realized right away, this little bout of theatrics did the Mayor and all supporters of the NDO no favors. In fact, it merely stirred the pot even more, riling up the same group that so vociferously opposed the ordinance and fought it throughout the summer.

National news and opinion sites have been quick to castigate Parker, and she has received 20 bits of negative press for every item of support thus far. Fox News didn’t look too kindly, nor did The Washington Times. Forbes Magazine wrote that the city has “a first amendment problem.” Meanwhile, a columnist for The Washington Post even opined that the whole exercise is a trampling of the first amendment. The whole story is so outrageous at first glance that Snopes.com even ran a feature on it.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for Governor, both made big stinks today as well against this decision.

As a matter of law, I don’t know that Parker did anything too egregious. But beyond the shadow of a doubt, as a matter of policy, it was a foolish move on her office’s part. Fire and brimstone clergy, particularly those who all too often bully others, are remarkably talented at feigning victimization. In a place as religious and conservative as Houston, picking a fight with them will always be a losing proposition.

Parker even noted in a press conference today that these are fairly well-famed pastors, with expansive followings both on television and online. The sermons are easily accessible through less intrusive means than a court order. The whole point of this exercise was for show, and in that department, Parker undoubtedly lost. I’m glad she has backed off from this, hopefully it can cause the press to move past it and focus on some real issues. Typically, on Wednesday nights, I recap the events of the Houston City Council from the preceding morning. But the council did nothing of real note today. Everything revolved around press conferences involving this puny anonymity and the Ebola hysteria, respectively.

Rhymes with Right has more, from the other side of the aisle.

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?