Texpatriate endorses for Mayor of Houston

This board was severely displeased by Mayor Annise Parker’s first term in office. Misplaced priorities and painful austerity measures led us to believe that Houston was without exemplary leadership and that, perhaps, we could do better. Accordingly, after Mayor Parker won re-election to a second term in 2011, we looked with anticipation as high-profile candidates were discussed to challenge the Mayor in the 2013 election, as she would battle for her third and final term as Mayor. Eventually, after better suited candidates such as Councilmember C.O. Bradford ruled out a Mayoral run, former City Attorney Ben Hall decided to challenge the Mayor.

But a funny thing happened in Mayor Parker’s second term. Houston starting booming, and good things started happening, both on Bagby Street and Main Street. While it would be easy to to attribute this success to an economy largely out of City Government’s hands, this board believes that, in at least some small part, Houston’s recent successes have been the result of a different, more successful, leadership style from the Mayor. Whereas in her first term, Mayor Parker attempted to extend the consensus-building, moderate stances of her predecessor, Bill White, she has become more comfortable with not trying to please everyone in the last biennial.

That being said, this board was still excited to see the entrance of Ben Hall into the Mayor’s election. Mr Hall is an intelligent, hard-working public servant. We hoped that his entrance in the Mayor’s election would foster a real discussion between candidates on pertinent issues. We hoped the election would serve as a quintessential referendum on an incumbent, featuring a fearless, principled challenger.

To find out who <em>Texpatriate</em> endorses, please click here!

Brown and Hall agree on taxes

The Houston Chronicle reports on a futile effort by a City Councilmember, Helena Brown, to continue her one-person crusade against the Government. This is a typical Wednesday at City Hall, except to note the strange ally Brown garnered today.

As the council was set to approve the property tax rates for the year at today’s meeting, Councilmember Brown used a strange set of numbers to note that, as opposed to City data showing a 6% “revenue increase,” the Harris County Appraisal District (HCAD) notes the number is closer to 10.5%. It is important to note that a “revenue increase” just means that more money is being collected, not that the percentages have increased. This is actually, in some ways, a good sign, as it shows that property values have recovered from the economic downturn.

Councilmember Brown then proposed two amendments, one to decrease the property tax by two cents, and one to decrease it by one cent. Both measures failed, as the rest of the Council voted in unanimity against Councilmember Brown. Very conservative individuals such as Councilmember Christie, Martin and Pennington voted in favor of the measure. Accordingly, it would be unwise to conflate this with a normal left-vs-right measure.

To read about Brown’s unlikely ally, click here!

More Chronicle endorsements

About a week ago, the Chronicle fielded its first two municipal endorsements: in District D and the Controller’s race. In the days since, the paper has made selections in seven more races, including three bitterly contested contests, not the least of which is the Mayoral election.

First, the Chronicle endorsed Jerry Davis for re-election in District B, much similar to the Texpatriate Editorial Board’s decision a couple weeks ago. The rationale was somewhat similar, a decision that Councilmember Davis had done a good job in office and should not be replaced without a good reason–one of which was not present.

Next, the paper endorsed Oliver Pennington for re-election in District G, again just as Texpatriate had earlier. The editorial, however, was painfully short on details, and seemed to be lacking a real reason to vote for Councilmember Pennington besides his incumbency. Typically, the Chronicle tries to avoid this.

The paper also continued to lob easy endorsements, such as Al Hoang for District F and Stephen Costello for At-large position #1. Texpatriate made the same recommendations, (Hoang and Costello, respectively) once again. This alignment should not be all that surprising, as all of these individuals are running with very little opposition. Accordingly, nearly everyone making endorsements will come to this conclusion.

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Ben Hall and the Houston Chronicle

There is one newspaper of record in this City, the Houston Chronicle. Longer than I have been alive, it has completed its editorial endorsement process in a very particular way that is not all that different from any other respectable print publication in the world.

The publication gets the candidates in a room and asks them questions. Thereafter, it renders its decision. The meeting is closed and confidential. The rationale for this is somewhat straightforward. The Houston Chronicle has a vested interest in making money. They make money by selling newspapers, and they sell newspapers by writing articles people want to read. One of these editorial endorsements is a perfect example of such an article.

Accordingly, the Houston Chronicle would not be keen on the idea of letting outside media come into this meeting, nor would they be open to one of its participants filming and distributing copies of the meeting himself. But those are the same exact requests that Ben Hall’s campaign repeatedly and inanely made to the paper.

After making the demands over and over again, all the while being continuously rebuffed, the Houston Chronicle reported that Ben Hall cancelled his appearance at the screening just fifteen minutes before it began.

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Hall losing steam?

Greg Groogan at KRIV recently published an article on Ben Hall’s candidacy. The story was a fairly straightforward piece about Ben Hall’s recent ad on crime-fighting. However, what threw the local political followers into a frenzy was the last line: “The millionaire candidate has decided against investing in any more TV time during the final 27 days of the campaign.”

The short innuendo was later expanded upon by Groogan on Twitter, who noted he was confident that Ben Hall had actively decided against spending any more money on TV ads throughout the campaign. This, in turn, led to Mike Morris at the Houston Chronicle picking the story up.

It has now been confirmed that Hall will not be investing any more money into a TV blitz before November 5th, whereas Mayor Parker will be airing what the Chronicle calls “hundreds of slots” in the waning days of the election.

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Mayoral debate recap

A couples of months ago, Annise Parker demanded that there be only one Mayoral debate, and it be open to all candidates. Because you can’t have a debate without the incumbent, she ultimately got her way. That debate, hosted by the League of Women Voters and the Public Television station, was held last night. In a word, it was a disaster. But that is exactly what Annise Parker wanted, so she was truly the big winner last night, whether the viewers knew it or not.

The debate was two hours long, divided amongst the six candidates who showed up: Parker, Ben Hall, Eric Dick, Keryl Douglas, Don Cook and Michael Fitzsimmons. Yes, THAT Fitzsimmons, the de Blassio style communist. The result was that, factoring in the time it takes for questions and other formalities, each candidate only received a little more than 15 minutes of speaking time. I reckon that none of the candidates, including the Mayor, used the time efficiently or effectively. But again, perhaps that was the Mayor’s strategy.

One by one, I will examine how the candidates performed in reverse-order of their performance. First, Fitzsimmons surprised me by actually showing up. I had a recurring joke with my friends about how many times he would say something like “solidarity” or “revolution,” and, needless to say, we were not disappointed. As an open member of the Socialist Workers Party, Fitzsimmons is about as left wing as they get in Houston. It is clear that his campaign is symbolic in nature, as he dodged direct answers of most of the policy questions, instead focusing on broad themes about “working people” or “capitalism.”

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Hall’s texting troubles

A few days ago, I noted that Ben Hall’s campaign was planning on blasting the cell phones of over 100,000 Houstonians with text message updates of the campaign. Further, it appeared that this would be done without the consent of those contacted, in violation of the law.

Shortly after this occurred, KRIV noted that one such recipient of these messages, a non-Houston resident named Joe Shields, had initiated a Federal, class-action lawsuit against Hall for the messages. They key dispute boiled down to whether Shields, and many others like him, had actually “opted-in” or “consented” to the text messages, as is required under Federal Law.

Mike Morris at the Houston Chronicle also wrote upon this topic extensively this morning, and I will highlight a few paragraphs in particular that deal with the relevant laws:

Federal rules prohibit unsolicited, prerecorded sales calls to landline phones, but exempt political calls of that type, known as “robocalls.” The rules for cellphones are more restrictive: To receive cellphone calls or text messages a person must give “express prior consent” or the situation must be an emergency, said Richard Alderman, dean of the University of Houston Law Center.

Politikast gathers some of its own user information and buys the rest from third parties such as Netflix and FreeCreditReport.com, according to an online presentation about its work. Alderman said he would be more comfortable if voters opted in directly with a campaign – texting a number announced at a rally, or entering their cell number on a campaign website, as often is done – rather than having the “opt in” come from an unrelated website.

“To legally send you text messages based on your consent, they must prove that you expressly agreed to receive the messages,” Alderman said. “I do not believe a broad consent satisfies the statutory requirement that the person ‘expressly agree.'”

These conditions are in stark contrast to what the Hall campaign uses as their cover. Hall, speaking through press secretary Julia Smekalina, notes that if the individuals had opted into receiving political messages at some point in the past, it would suffice. Even if the recipients had not expressly opted into Hall’s campaign specifically.

Morris then interviewed a lawyer on this topic thereafter, who felt that the actions were not especially justified under the law.

For the record, Shield, the recipient of the text message who filed the lawsuit, lives in a suburb (Friendswood) and thus will not even be eligible to vote in the election. From what I understand, most recipients of these text messages were not Houston residents as well. Just like the Facebook page troubles, this is an expensive disaster for the campaign that will not engage any undecided voters.

Hall’s third TV ad

Not to be outdone by what Parker released earlier today, Ben Hall has responded with a thirty-second spot of his own today. The ad, titled “Less,” looks at Hall’s position on crime.

As I have stated myriad times before, Ben Hall has a real issue he can run on –and hopefully attract undecideds with– when it comes to crime. There is a lot to be said about how dangerous Houston is, and I believe that, given the right conditions, this could be a rear pain for the Mayor. Call it the Romney problem, perhaps, but Hall has largely been a somewhat inept message of these issues. His new commercial proved to be no exception.

Keeping in line with Hall’s tradition of simply looking into the camera and delivering the whole script himself, Hall started his ad with a rhetorical question, “Here’s what Mayor Parker says about crime.” The remark was followed by about three seconds of an ineffably awkward silence while he shakes his head in perceived frustration. He then replies (to himself) with the obligatory “Here’s what I say,” continuing with:

“We don’t need more police, we need less [sic] criminals! I’ll make their lives miserable; cleaning the city, cutting weeds. Just barely within the bounds of the constitution.

And install surveillance cameras like other cities, not traffic cameras, so we can catch ‘em.

Here’s a clue mayor; criminals don’t like to get caught.”

The title of the ad is “Less,” of course in reference to the comment about “less criminals.” I do not think he could have tried to pick a worse word in the ad to use as his title. A quick third-grade grammar lesson should refresh the Hall campaign’s memory, that “less” is only appropriate in cases of an non-quantifiable items. Normally, I am not a grammar Nazi, and rarely do I snipe at public officials for making such errors. However, this was not an off the cuff remark, it was something that was meticulously rehearsed. Everyone in Hall’s campaign probably reviewed that video. The problem I see is not the minor grammatical mistake as much as it is the startling problems arising over the management of his campaign.

But my real issues arise over the ideas he brought up. While some of Hall’s previous crime-fighting ideas are worth looking at (it is worth noting that many were actually the Mayor’s first), the two he brought up in today’s ad are from it.

Making criminals’ “lives miserable” is not an effective way to garner the support of Democrats (particularly, African-American Democrats). As for his suggestion that he approach the limits of the 8th Amendment using punitive measures, I truly have no response. The City of Houston does not really control punishment for anything except Class C Misdemeanors. If Ben Hall is actually talking about approaching the confides of “cruel and unusual punishment” for parking tickets and MIPs, again, I do not know where to start.

As for the surveillance camera idea, I am not a fan, but applaud Hall for taking chance on a divergent issues from the Mayor that is, at least, a little bit reasonable.

The ad was not even close, however, to the most ridiculous thing that Ben Hall did today. The campaign sent another press release to me today, outlining their new voter outreach efforts. I will quote the sentence that stood out to me the most (and not just because it is also grammatically incorrect):

The campaign is will[sic] send the following text to over 100,000 Houston voters with the below message and a link to the recent ad video, “Dream”:

I’m no expert on election law, but I think it is illegal to send unsolicited text messages like this. This will become a bigger issue, I believe.

Bay Area Houston has more.


Parker’s second TV ad

Mayor Annise Parker has released her second campaign television advertisement, less than a week after Hall released a second commercial of his own. The ad, which is thirty second, is embedded and linked below:

The commercial continues with Parker’s basic strategy vis-a-vis Hall, which has been to just keep swinging and clubbing at all the low hanging fruit of his campaign. The commercial includes five definitive allegations against Hall, all of which I have determined to be true.

First, the ad makes the claim of “Houston teachers oppose Ben Hall for mayor.” The statement is obviously an exaggeration, being overly simplistic, but the Houston Federation of Teachers (the local affiliate of the powerful AFT Union) did endorse Parker. I rate this statement “true enough,” therefore, especially considering how many liberties with the truth Hall and Dick have taken. Next, Parker’s commercial says”

“A Ben Hall ad bragged about his commitment to our schools, but Hall owed $57,000 in unpaid school taxes. And Hall didn’t pay those taxes, until news media asked about it. Hall has been penalized over $130,000 for late property taxes. When asked why, Hall says, ‘It’s just my way of dealing with it.'”

The Parker campaign, for allegations No. 2-5, is referencing an issue that arose in May. At that time, I even noted all of these allegations explicitly, even lambasting Hall’s nonchalant attitude when confronted with the allegations by KHOU. At the time, Charles Kuffner noted that “The story was abetted by a tip from the Parker campaign,” so I do not suppose this subject for an attack ad is actually all that surprising.

For my own two cents, I find that such an ad from the Parker campaign is ineffective and not as good of a bet as a positive message. I noted this after she published her first TV ad, when I said “Parker has a heck of a record to run on, and it would be a squandered opportunity to pass that up.”

Parker DOES have a fantastic record for her second term in office. While plenty of other cities are still struggling, Houston is soaring. I can’t remember that last time, living in Boston, that I saw a construction crane. Oh, that’s right, it was when I was in Houston! While those with erudite concentration on municipal politics will understand the exact issue Hall referenced, the vast majority of the electorate will not. I have always maintained that, when one has a leg to stand on, positive ads are much better than negative ones. Everyone remembers Reagan’s “Morning in America” ad, but few can recall whatever attack-of-the-moment he launched against Mondale.

Obama could never do that. The economy, for all intent and purposes, is still struggling, so he had to convince people it could get better under his continued conservatorship. All Parker has to do is explain why it is already better, and how you should not fix something that is not broken.

Hall’s campaign then responded to the odds with an odd ramblings of its own:

“Ben Hall has paid two and half times more in Houston property taxes than Ms. Parker. And while their one trick pony campaign insists on distracting voters with this nonsensical issue, Ms. Parker is dangerously close to running out of time to talk to voters about issues they actually care about. Where are Ms. Parker’s solutions to Houston’s soaring crime rates, failing roads and infrastructure, inadequate education system, and looming financial liabilities?

And if Ms. Parker really wants to question the ethical integrity of this mayoral race, why hasn’t she explained her blatantly corrupt 16 years in public office?”

First of all, I do not give a flying care that Ben Hall paid more than Parker in property taxes overall. Of course he pays more taxes, he lived in a huge mansion in a suburb, while Parker lives in a more modest home that I would guess is somewhat under-appraised. The argument could be applied that Wesley Snipes pays more in taxes, overall, than I do does not means that Wesley Snipes is a model citizen or that I am not. This is so chock full of logical fallacies that it barely deserves the dignity of my response.

I do really like the, albeit fleeting, mention of “soaring crime rates, failing roads and infrastructure, inadequate education system, and looming financial liabilities?” There was only one item in that whole sentence that made me livid, and it was the oxford comma. But what came after the sentence –nothing– is what really frustrated. For months now, the Hall campaign has been flirting with the idea of talking about real, substantive issues. They still have not done this. Even worse, Hall’s campaign almost immediately became guilty of the same mudslinging, but alluding to far-fetched innuendo about Parker being corrupt.

This is silly season, don’t be fooled. I had expected better from both candidates, to be honest.

Hall alleges corruption

The Houston Chronicle reports on the Ben Hall campaign’s recent allegations of corruption at City Hall. Perhaps this is what he was referring to when speaking broadly, in innuendo, of Parker’s “multiple ethics violations.” Hall’s campaign sent me a press release outlining what his plan would be, in regard to solving the evident crisis of corruption. I have to give him some credit for outlining an actual problem –more later on if the problem actually pertains to the Mayor, however– and having some specific, concrete solutions to the problem. As Hall delineates in his press release, his 10-point plan on corruption:

  1. Two-year moratorium on accepting campaign contributions after vendors receive city contracts.

  2. Two-year moratorium on accepting campaign contributions from municipal appointees.

  3. A candidate may not accept any contributions over $250.00 from an officer, director, or employee of a city contractor.

  4. When a contract is awarded or a person appointed, all campaign contributions given by that individual and/or company during the previous municipal election cycle must be disclosed immediately.

  5. Two-year moratorium on any city employees registering as lobbyists or working for a lobbying firm. 

  6. Requiring lobbyists to file reports and creation of a searchable online database showing information (i.e. names of companies they lobby for, amount paid, amount spent, amount spent on contributions, etc.)

  7. No gifts will be accepted by the Mayor within the six months preceding an election.

  8. Create a searchable online database of city contracts awarded by all departments.

  9. Create a searchable online city check register.

  10. Increased accountability through improving search capability for ethics reports.

Some of the points are not as specific as they should be, but it is a start. Point No. 6, which essentially requires lobbyists to file the equivalent of a campaign finance report, seems somewhat arduous and excessive. As does Point No. 7, which is greatly arbitrary. That being said, I really do like a lot of his ideas on moratoriums, specifically Point No. 5, which has been pushed for most prominently at the national level. The phenomenon is typically referred to as the “Revolving Door problem,” and is an issue in any place of government, be that Washington, Austin or Houston.

Hall’s campaign ideas on this subject are chock full of interesting ideas, but that leaves one question conveniently unanswered. How does this pertain to the incumbent? My basic, underlying philosophy on elections featuring an incumbent is that the challengers must convince the electorate that the incumbent has failed. It seems that Hall largely agrees with this premise

A lengthy report was also published by the Hall campaign, noting all of Parker’s major campaign donations featuring city contractors. The report, which is about 13 pages long full of names, features two possible ethics violations. The analysis by Mike Morris at the Chronicle also was somewhat indecisive, bordering on dubious, vis-a-vis these allegations. I tend to agree with him.

Morris then interviewed Dave Feldman, the City Attorney. He noted that many of the contracts that Hall lambasts, those involving $50k or more in expenses, are the City Council’s job to approve, rather than the Executive Branch’s. On the greater issue, Feldman criticized the assertions as “absurd.”

While I certainly do not believe that the Mayor acted in bad faith in regard to campaign finance issues, I was somewhat surprised and perplexed to see how the Parker campaign responded to the issue. Rather than fully deny any wrongdoing on Parker’s part (again, not alleging they are hiding anything), the Mayor’s campaign simply responded by casting an aversion of their own. The Mayor’s spokesperson, Sue Davis, simply deflected the subject to Hall’s past allegations of impropriety, his tax liens and his tax returns. While those are all valid topics of discussion, they were not the issue at hand, but I digress.

Ben Hall would be wise to knock off his ridiculous claims of Parker being some sort of corrupt politician. And Annise Parker would be wise to not stoop to that low level by not responding with mudslinging, simply addressing the issue and moving on. The campaign really needs to be talking about substance, and this is where the points Hall alleges come into play.

I would like to know, without any sensationalism, without any editorializing, what Parker’s campaign thinks of these issues. To be such a proponent of campaign finance reform and strict regulations seems more systemic of the actual Ben Hall, the Democrat, rather than the faux, Republican-friendly one. I am curious to also know what Hall’s Republican supports think of this idea. As a Democrat, I have historically supported ideas such as closing the revolving door. It would be the height of hypocrisy for me to now oppose those beliefs because of which candidate is attached to them. I hope my colleagues may see it that way as well.