Catching up, Part I

In the last week, no shortage of big news has transpired down at City Hall. Coincidentally, I was down there three or four days of the past week, but mostly heard the big news secondhand. Perhaps most importantly, as the Houston Chronicle reports, Mayor Annise Parker has officially nominated her new City Attorney to replace David Feldman, who announced his resignation last month. The nominee is Donna Edmundson, who — if confirmed — would become the first woman to take the city’s top legal job. She has a lengthy and impressive career on the fourth floor, working there for nearly thirty years (straight out of law school).

Among Edmundson’s accomplishments in the past have been working tirelessly against gangs in high-risk neighborhoods, as well as being instrumental in reaching the 2013 deal between Parker and the strip club cabal. Needless to say, the City Attorney’s office will be in capable hands with Edmundson.

The announcement largely took the political community by surprise, as Edmundson was undoubtedly an under-the-radar pick. Many had expected either Lynette Fons, the First Assistant City Attorney, or Steven Kirkland, a Municipal Judge and former Civil District Judge, to be selected.

Standing besides Parker at the press conference that unveiled Edmundson’s selection were City Councilmembers Dwight Boykins (D-District D) and Jack Christie (R-At Large 5), respectively, who both voiced their support of the nomination. The bipartisan support is expected to continue, and Edmundson could easily be confirmed unanimously. The timing is somewhat important, as Feldman — whose last year in office was rocked over the controversial non-discrimination ordinance — is planning on testifying in the upcoming NDO trial.

For those unfamiliar, the NDO prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and a plethora of other demographics in employment (15+ employees) and places of public accommodation. Most of those categories (the notable exceptions being sexual orientation and gender identity) are already protected by state and federal regulations, but this ordinance makes legal options considerably easier/cheaper. Obviously, the protections for the LGBT community garnered those same trite homophobic reactions and blowback, although the Parker administration did foul up the roll-out of the ordinance. I contend that some of the ordinance’s strongest critics, such as Councilmember Michael Kubosh, could have been amenable to supporting the bill if Parker had not been so confrontational and divisive about the whole matter.

Anyways, opponents gathered enough signatures to force a referendum on this topic, but the City Attorney’s office — going around City Secretary Anna Russell, who had certified the petitions — disqualified most of the signatures. Off the court the whole thing went, which brings us to the present.

The Houston Chronicle reports that the trial over these petition certifications will occur on January 20th in the court of Civil District Judge Robert Schaffer, a Democrat. This past week, arguments took place regarding whether or not the case should be a jury trial or a bench trial (decided by the Judge). At the City Council meeting on Wednesday, some members of the Council weighed in on the matter. Kubosh believed that the will of the people should be respected and, as such, a jury trial should be sought. City Councilmember C.O. Bradford (D-At Large 4), who is both an attorney and a supporter of the NDO, agreed that a jury trial would be ideal.

I tend to agree with their sentiment, but think that at the end of the day this is a legal and not a political issue. Schaffer is a very good judge, who checks his politics at the door. I think whatever decision he comes to will be a well-reasoned one.

Speaking of lawsuits, Friday hosted some other big news in municipal politics. Theodore Schleifer at the Houston Chronicle reports that a Federal Judge, Sim Lake (a Reagan nominee), has placed a preliminary injunction on Houston’s municipal fundraising rules, which disallow candidates from raising money before February 1st. Since nothing is expected to change in the next three weeks, the floodgates have officially opened for mayoral and council candidates to begin raising money.

Schliefer, in a subsequent Chronicle post, described the stampede of fundraising that is already abound and how, if the law is definitively declared unconstitutional later this year, it will change the dynamics of local politics. Meanwhile, a separate lawsuit will be heard tomorrow, initiated by former Congressman Chris Bell, a likely mayoral candidate. Bell, as I noted a few months back, has sued Sylvester Turner (D-Harris County), another mayoral candidate, arguing that he violated the spirit of municipal regulations last year when he raised money for an all-but-obsolete legislative account, then later plans to dump all the money into a mayoral account.

As I said back then and still believe, the local campaign finance regulations tend to do more harm than good. But it will be interesting, to say the least, seeing how it will affect the mayoral candidate on the horizon.

Civil Affairs: McCutcheon

Nearly two weeks ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled, in a closely divided case — McCutcheon v. FEC — that political donors have the right to give a certain amount of money to as many candidates as they like. Previously, federal law had prevented a donor from providing the maximum donation ($2,600 for a candidate, $5,000 to a political action committee and $32,400 to a political party) to more than roughly 19 candidates or 15 PACs. Now, those donors can give those aforementioned individual limits to as many candidates, committees and interest groups as they wish.

The 5-4 decision rested upon the assertion that, under the First Amendment, money is tantamount to speech. Using that assumption, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that, despite its unpopularity, the right to give money to as many politicians as you choose is fundamentally constitutional. Of course, spending money should not be a universal right like worship or speech because not everyone has the pocketbook needed.

“Money in politics may, at times, seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects,” Roberts wrote in a decision joined by the four other justices nominated by Republican presidents. “If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests, and Nazi parades — despite the profound offense such spectacles cause — it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.”

PLEASE SEE THE REST OF THIS COLUMN AT THE DAILY TEXAN!

Dewhurst adds to Ethics committee

The Houston Chronicle reports that Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst has appointed a new Democrat to the Texas Ethics Commission. As I noted back in December, Dewhurst had previously been considering former Congressman Craig Washington for the post. However, on Friday, it was determined that former State Representative Wilhemina Delco would be appointed to the position.

Delco was first nominated by State Senator Kirk Watson (D-Travis County), the de facto Senate Minority Leader. Likewise, Delco served in office from the capital area and continues to reside there to this day. Delco, 84, has a long and illustrious career in public service. She was first elected to public office in 1968, to the AISD School Board, being the first African-American person (much less, a woman) elected to office in Austin. In 1976, she was elected to the Texas House, where she served for ten terms.

Click here to read more!

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.

 

 

Mike Miller fined

The Houston Chronicle reports that Mike Miller, a (Civil) District Judge in Harris County, has been fined by the Texas Ethics Commission.

Miller, a Democrat endorsed last year by Texpatriate, allegedly did not “disclose payments and payees.” Further, he allegedly gifted more than $250 –the statutory limit– to the Harris County Democratic Party out of his campaign funds.

The total fine was a mere $700, indicating a somewhat venial offense on the part of Miller. However, any time an officeholder, campaign or candidate violates any ethics rules, including campaign finance infraction, it is a serious violation of the public’s trust.

Being able to work very closely with a campaign in the past few weeks, I have become painfully familiar with the intricacies of campaign finance rules. Sometimes the meticulous means one must go through to keep everything kosher is a bit excessive, but it is the law. There are a lot of rules that are not very well known, and are somewhat forgivable. The error caused by giving too much money to the County Party is an example of such an occurrence.

However, the failure to “disclose payments and payees” could very well be a more serious issue. I will be contacting both the Chronicle and Judge Miller to find out more facts about this developing situation before coming to any judgmental conclusions,  however.