Lewis will run for Council

10358729_10152837236005775_593369116069555469_n

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

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.

A summer of HERO

Note: For whatever reason, I felt like writing what I saw fit as a timeline. I promise there is some original commentary in here, so if you are not inclined to read my overview, just skip about five paragraphs down.

This is the blog post I have been waiting all summer to write. Once again, I apologize for not attentively following this issue in print since May. As I explained back then, I have been employed this summer in public relations projects involving ongoing issues at City Hall (the word “lobbying” has been brought up by detractors of mine on a number of occasions, though it remains to be said that I am not a registered lobbyist nor have I done anything that would necessitate such a designation). Thus, I voluntarily decided to withdraw myself from commentating on other ongoing issues. However, considering the issue I was working on has had a final council vote (check my Facebook page for my personal thoughts on that matter–largely positive!!), and my employment has shifted to PR/marketing aimed toward the general public, my conflicts have been removed.

The obvious updates since I stopped writing on this issue in May is that the non-discrimination ordinance passed (duh!). While the initial draft of the bill only required those private employers with more than 50 employees to adhere to the law, an amendment by Councilmember Robert Gallegos (D-District I) was offered that lowered the threshold to 15 employees. In review, the law prohibits discrimination against a person in private or public employment, as well as public accommodations, on the basis of the plethora of demographic groups protected on Federal law (race, sex, religion, etc),  in addition to sexual orientation and gender identity. City Hall can’t fire you for being black, Doe & Doe (Attorneys at Law) can’t fire you for being transgendered and Acme Anvils can’t put a sign on their front door that says “Gays not welcome.” In addition to the Gallegos amendment, Councilmember Jerry Davis (D-District B), under blessing of the Mayor, nixed a specific provision detailing the rights of transgendered persons to use the bathroom of their gender identity, not necessarily their biological sex. It is worth noting, however, that under the broad language of the ordinance, that same bathroom language is in effect still valid.

When all was said and done, the ordinance passed 11-6. Councilmembers Davis, Ellen Cohen (D-District C), Richard Nguyen (R-District F), Ed Gonzalez (D-District H), Gallegos, Mike Laster (D-District J), Larry Green (D-District K), Stephen Costello (R-At Large 1), David Robinson (D-At Large 2) and C.O. Bradford (D-At Large 4) voted in favor. Councilmembers Brenda Stardig (R-District A), Dwight Boykins (D-District D), Dave Martin (R-District E), Oliver Pennington (R-District G), Michael Kubosh (R-At Large 3) and Jack Christie (R-At Large 5) voted against.

Opponents of the ordinance congregated around claims of “religious liberty,” claiming that if being gay went against one’s religious views, being forced to accommodate someone would be immoral to them. They came back with a vengeance, circulating petitions to force a referendum on this bill. A few weeks ago, they submitted 50,000 signatures, far more than the required 17,000 to require a referendum. However, proponents of the ordinance independently verified all the signatories, and found the petitions riddled with violations of the rules. While there were surely many signatories who were not City of Houston voters, thousands more were discounted because the distributors of the petition for that page was not properly credentialed, which invalidated all the signatures on said page. Under such strict scrutiny, Mayor Annise Parker and City Attorney Dave Feldman held that the non-discrimination ordinance (now colloquially known as HERO, or the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, by the way) would not be challenged on the ballot. Opponents expeditiously marched to the courthouse.

After a little bit of jockeying back and forward between State and Federal court, the dispute landed in (State Civil) 55th District Judge Jeff Shadwick’s court. A Republican, he placed a temporary restraining order on the enforcement of the law (redundant, for what it’s worth, because Parker had already enjoined enforcement) and scheduled a hearing on the validity of the petitions for August 15th. August 18th is the deadline, as I understand it, for something to be placed on the ballot this November.

My first and most obvious stipulation is that I am absolutely overjoyed that this measure passed, and I think that Houston is all the better for it. In an ideal world, there shouldn’t even be the 15 employee threshold (though certainly an exception for religious institutions and non-profits). That being said, there are some legitimate arguments against this proposal. Persuasive to me? Absolutely not. But legitimate nonetheless.

I think the best argument there was centered on the ordinance’s sheer unpopularity in the general public. In my opinion, this runs hand and hand with some major fumbles on the part of the Mayor. First and foremost, she made the ordinance nearly 100% about the LGBT community, when the ordinance was about everyone. Indubitably, rights for LGBT people are unbelievably important and even as a standalone issue should be fought for relentlessly, but so should Civil Rights for African-Americans and Hispanics, as well as protections by age, veterans status, disability and religion, to name a few. Perhaps the worst moment was when she addressed a commentator at public session by noting that the ordinance was “personal” for her. Simply put, it’s not about her. It’s about everyone. And by claiming it is about her and the LGBT community, she provides unneeded fodder for detractors to overturn the ordinance in a referendum.

Additionally, criticism was misplaced, and that is a huge understatement. The amount of nastiness directed toward Councilmember Brenda Stardig in particular was simply appalling. I will be the first to admit that I disagreed with Stardig’s vote, but that does not justify personal rhetorical attacks. Her office’s Facebook page was overrun with mean-spirited comments and she was singled out by a couple of commentators. Stardig never said she would support a non-discrimination ordinance and her constituency was overwhelmingly opposed. I fail to see the controversy here.

Like Stardig, all but two of the Councilmembers who voted no made no such earlier promise, and by-and-large came from constituencies opposing this ordinance. The two big exceptions were Dwight Boykins and Jack Christie.

With Christie, I can’t say I’m surprised. He had been utterly non-committal throughout last year’s campaign about supporting such an ordinance, even in response to incessant queries by his two opponents (Disclosure: one of them, James Horwitz, is my father), who were both big supporters of a non-discrimination ordinance and same-sex marriage. For some reason, last election cycle the GLBT Caucus was figuratively in love with Christie, not only endorsing him but campaigning for him vigorously against two liberal Democratic opponents. I don’t want to say, “I told you so,” but…you know the rest. It’s definitely not Christie’s fault, though. He would only say that he supported a non-discrimination ordinance in very broad terms, and one could tell the bulk of his issues revolved around lowering the employee threshold to 15. It’s the fault of those who voted for him, expecting him to do something different. Don’t blame a politician for voting one’s district, but definitely don’t do so for voting one’s conscious–when the evidence previously pointed to the conclusion. It comes off as naive.

Now, Dwight Boykins is a whole other story. Throughout the campaign, he triumphantly touted his support for LGBT rights and has n0t at all been hesitant about any of it. Simply put, he lied. I understand that he thought his district was against it, but if you think like that, don’t talk to interest groups day in and day out about how you think LGBT rights should be a civil rights issue. Both are good enough selections, but you can only choose one. Boykins attempted to choose both, and as such, now appears for what he is: a giant hypocrite.

But perhaps one of the biggest disappointments in all this has been the Mayor. Simply put, she was a “sore-winner.” Instead of being gracious in victory and moving on to the referendum (which will be the real battle), she kept harping on bumping the margins up on the final vote. Even after the final vote, she showed favorites to the ordinances proponents and snubbed the opponents in discourteous and unprofessional ways.

In a City Council meeting in late June, Kubosh even made a comment at Council about how he should agree with the Mayor more often, so that “he too might get his bottle of wine.” At this point, coos and shrieks from council staff could be heard throughout the room. Obviously, I was curious as to what he was referencing, so I asked around. It turns out that the Mayor bought cheap bottles of red wine for all the Councilmembers who voted with her on the NDO, conspicuously snubbing those who did not. That type of antic –giving little treats in a very obvious fashion to your allies after they vote with you– is reminiscent of the petty, sophomoric tactics used by second-rate lobbyists, not the decorum expected of the Mayor.

But all this is just semantics, which in the grand scheme of things is rather unimportant. Probably the most egregious error in this whole process was the Mayor not focusing on the almost mandatory referendum. At the end of the day, the fact is that the City Secretary has noted that the number of valid signatures are above the minimum. Furthermore, when it comes to the jurisprudence of the matter, strict requirements for those circulating petitions to be registered voters are likely too onerous to stand up in court. A referendum is coming, and the best scenario is for it to be in November 2014. If it happens in May 2015, it will almost certainly fail. It is happens in November 2015, it will also likely fail, and could negatively affect City elections vis-a-vis progressive candidates.

But enough about just negative sentiment. At the end of the day, the courageous men and women at the GLBT Caucus and other interests did yeoman’s work in advancing this positive piece of legislation. I’m a bit of pessimist and a cynic, so I will also find things to gripe about, but that does not change the reality that a very good ordinance passed, an even stronger one than San Antonio’s! The process may have been muddied, and the long road is not even over yet, but if this holds up in a referendum, it will be Mayor Annise Parker’s lasting legacy as Mayor. It will be a darn good one.

As always, my fellow bloggers have provided awesome commentary on this issue. Brains & Eggs, Dos Centavos, Off the Kuff and Texas Leftist all give great perspectives on the left, while Big Jolly Politics and Rhymes with Right do the same on the right.

NDO Public Session held

I climbed the steps of City Hall today for the first time in a couple months. I did not have a surplus of time, so I only got to peak my head into the very beginning of the public session. For those unfamiliar, the City Council is required by law to listen to members of the public on agenda and non-agenda items weekly. Anyone in the city may call the City Secretary and receive at least 60 seconds of speaking time before the Council. This week, the discussion centered unanimously around the non-discrimination ordinance being considered by the Council, which I have written about extensively in the past. In short, the ordinance codifies existing Federal regulations against discrimination into local law, as well as expand them to protect both sexual orientation and gender identity.

There were over 80 speakers on this ordinance, with over 4/5ths of them being supportive thereof. Elected officials, such as State Senator John Whitmire, Sheriff Adrian Garcia, State Representative Garnet Coleman and State Representative Carol Alvarado lent their support in person. Other elected officials, such as State Senator Rodney Ellis, State Senator Sylvia Garcia and State Representative Sylvester Turner, have also been quite supportive, but did not make an appearance in person. Another who did, however, was former Congressman Chris Bell, a likely Mayoral candidate in 2015 (along with Turner and, possibly, Garcia). A number of other stalwarts in the community spoke up today, though perhaps my favorite speaker was Sissy Farenthold. Simply put, she was Ann Richards before there was Ann Richards, serving at one time as the only female member of the Legislature and coming heartbreakingly close to winning the Democratic nomination for Governor in the 1970s.

Click here to read about more supporters, opponents, and the Councilmembers’ reactions!

Majority of Councilmembers support NDO

As I reported yesterday, the first real draft proposal of Houston’s non-discrimination ordinance has officially been introduced to the City Council and unveiled to the general public. Longtime followers of the saga could probably explain it as well as me at this point, but the ordinance does three basic things. First, it bans discrimination against LGBT people (among countless other demographics, all of which are already protected under Federal Law) in government sectors. Second, discrimination is banned in businesses, both in employment and public accommodation. The anecdote I keep using is that a restaurant would not be able to deny service to a gay patron, nor fire a lesbian waitress for coming out to her boss. That last part, extending the ordinance’s protections to private employment, was a hard-fought victory for the GLBT caucus in Houston, as well as all opponents of homophobia.

Mayor Annise Parker was originally tepid on this provision because there were ostensibly not enough Councilmembers supporting it. A few weeks ago, my sources counted eight supporters of private employment protections in the NDO (Mayor Annise Parker and CMs Stephen Costello, David Robinson, Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, Ed Gonzalez, Robert Gallegos and Mike Laster). This was exactly one vote shy of the needed majority for passage. However, a couple more Councilmembers have now gone out in the open supporting such legislation, giving it the green light to becoming law.

Click here to see which Councimembers are now supportive!

Parker pulls an Obama

This is a few days late, I have had a whirlwind of a weekend in Houston, but I felt that this story was specifically too important to ignore. In a recent speech and press release, Mayor Annise Parker outlined her proposals for a comprehensive non-discrimination ordinance protecting LGBT rights. The only problem with this, of course, it is not all that comprehensive. Texas Leftist sums up the position somewhat well, as does Lone Star Q. In short, it covers both public employment and private corporations providing public accommodations. However, it does not cover private employment. This means, simply put, that most people could continue to be fired in Houston just for being gay.

Ostensibly, Parker sold out on this important detail because she did not have the votes on the council. It is important to note, however, that the comprehensive NDOs are not as ubiquitous as many may think. Only Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth fully ban the private employer discrimination, whereas El Paso and San Antonio have ordinances similar to the one Mayor Parker has proposed. For all of Julian Castro’s accolades in his past last year for a comprehensive NDO, it did not actually go all that far in comparison.

Click here to read an analysis of how things stand at City Hall!

Council update 3/26

The Houston City Council accomplished three major actions today: (1) implementing a tax break for developers who raze buildings, (2) approving a tax credit for affordable (family friendly) apartments in District A and (3) a rewrite of the City’s animal control laws. Among the other actions taken, the City unanimously decided to both offer a bigger incentive to police academy recruits and amend ethics/disclosure rules for the municipal governance. I will have more on each and every one of these issues, complete with analysis and commentary from pertinent sources, including Councilmember C.O. Bradford on the dog issue.

First, on the minor issues, the Council unanimously voted to offer a $5000 incentive to new police academy recruits. As Mike Morris, a Houston Chronicle reporter/writer, noted on Twitter, this will hopefully make cops’ salaries somewhat more competitive in the marketplace. The cost is estimated to be about $350,000. The other minor action taken was loosening ethics rules, specifically by easing how many employees must annually file fiscal disclosure forms. Morris wrote an article in the Chronicle, slated for publication Thursday, dealing with this in greater detail. The only specific facet of any importance is that while elected officials, their personal staff and department directors were previously required to file disclosures, this has now been changed to simply the officials, their top staff and department directors.

Click here to read more, including analysis of the new affordable housing and dog code!