Texpatriate’s Best Councilmembers

Last year, this board examined the best and the worst members of the Houston City Council. After much debate and discussion, we decided to do it again. That being said, our criteria for inclusion — one way or another — has shifted considerably. Last year, we examined which councilmembers agreed with us on our policy goals and priorities the most. As such, the rankings delved into far more of a scorecard than an actual ranking. Looking back, such an assessment of a small and intimate deliberative body was deeply unwise. Being a councilmember, particularly in Houston, is about how one conducts themselves around the horseshoe and around the community. Constituent services are important, no doubt, but what makes or brakes inclusion, in our opinion, are leadership skills and consensus-building abilities.

Additionally, we placed considerable attention on the ability of the individual councilmembers to be unique and independent representatives. Given the strong-mayor system of Houston, this means how much the individuals were able to distinguish themselves from the agenda-setting priorities of Mayor Annise Parker.

Last year, we had nothing but adulation for Parker and her policy goals, whereas this year our opinion has been more mixed. Our reasoning is twofold. First, the composition of this editorial board has been truncated, with an effect of making our overall opinion nominally more conversation. However, we believe the main reason for the departure is that Parker opted to, instead of focus on a plethora of piecemeal accomplishments, pass two major pieces of legislation: a non-discrimination ordinance and an overhaul of vehicle-for-hire laws. We agreed with her on the former and disagreed on the latter, though we had serious reservations with the roll-out on both.

But some of Parker’s other accomplishments were marked with what we deemed to be executive overreach. Perhaps the best example of this was the unilateral decision to allow food trucks downtown, rescinding a dully-passed ordinance in the process. We agree with her on the underlying issue, but found the methods troublesome.

Some of the mayoral candidates for this year’s election, namely former Congressman Chris Bell, has suggested allowing councilmembers to introduce agenda items. We think this is a good idea, and thus have valued councilmembers who we believe would effectively participate in the legislative process.

Finally, we determined that the practice of deriding the “Worst” members of the council was unproductive. Given the small and non-partisan nature of the council, there is little parallel to State Legislature in that way.

Without further ado, we present our list:

THE BEST

MIKE LASTER: IT’S HIS WORLD, WE JUST ALL LIVE IN IT

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City Hall runs on a two-party system. No, not Democrats and Republicans. As any even cursory observer of municipal politics could explain, the system is official non-partisan. Most informed voters could tell you how the candidates fall one way or another, and super-partisans probably care about that type of stuff, but it just is not that important on Bagby street and around the horseshoe. The two parties at City Hall, much like a high school cafeteria, are the in-crowd and the outcasts. You can be on the mayor’s good side or not, and rarely is there a middle ground. The closest thing to one is Councilmember Mike Laster, the Democrat from District J (Sharpstown).

Early this past summer, Laster stood close with Parker as one of the council’s key proponents of the contentious non-discrimination ordinance, sometimes known as the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). Be it the press conferences, the never-ending public sessions or the at-times heated debates, Laster was a dependable and steadfast supporter of LGBT rights as well as the plethora of other demographics protected by this good-senses ordinance.

However, unlike some others, Laster was always a pragmatic and respectful voice on this issue. This board believes that the principle of equality for all is indisputable, but that does not mean that legislation ensuring that right must be beyond the horse-trading and moderation of municipal politics. Laster understood this principle well. If and when the NDO fight transforms into a municipal referendum, its survival depends on voices like his to not lose track of the big picture.

But Laster is not just a pragmatic voice in the majority, he can sometimes be an effective member of the loyal opposition. This was seen best during the summer-long fight on vehicle-for-hire ordinance, specifically seeking changes to accommodate Uber and Lyft into the market. Laster, representing an outer-loop middle class neighborhood, did not get caught up in the gleefest over the new yuppie infatuation. Instead, he calmly looked at how changes would affect his constituents, his city and his values. When he determined — rightly so — that the inequities in the system proposed were unfair, he audaciously fought against its implementation.

One may think that, allied with so many of his opponents from the NDO fight, this would have made for strange bedfellows. But Laster is not a tribal politician who holds grudges, especially not at city hall. Always one for integrity, he transcended the “parties” at city hall and assumed his new role capably.

C.O. BRADFORD: THE SMARTEST GUY IN THE ROOM

Politics all too often is about obfuscation, confusion and misdirection. Officeholders love using doublespeak, code words and other silly tricks to avoid telling the truth or to conceal their agendas. Unfortunately, that mindset — typically associated with the dysfunction of Washington — is present within local political structures as well. Thankfully, Councilmember C.O. Bradford, a Democrat from the fourth At-Large position, is one of the dependable voices of reason in the room, to not only cut through the fluff but possessing arguably the best command of the rules of procedure around the horseshoe.

This was perhaps best noticed during the aforementioned vehicle-for-hire debates. Every time Bradford was recognized to speak, he essentially took control of the situation, using his persuasive rhetoric and his encyclopedic knowledge of pertinent rules and procedures.

But, possibly most importantly, we have been in awe of Bradford’s conduct in regard to the aforementioned NDO. Firmly a member of the anti-Parker team, he played devil’s advocate at every turn, examining a roll-out that was at times sloppy and without focus. In the past few months, as opponents have attempted to place a referendum on the ordinance on the ballot, Bradford has been reasonable in his comments. However, on the most important underlying point, Bradford has never, ever wavered from a bedrock belief supportive of LGBT rights.

For one member of this board, the decision to include Bradford was particularly easy. Early last year, the council approved an overhaul of ordinances on stray dogs, and Bradford voted incorrectly in our opinion. Reaching Bradford for comment, he passionately, articulately and demonstrably defended his position in a way that not only made his views understandable but reinforced our positive impressions of municipal politics.

DAVE MARTIN: SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER

The Houston City Council, like any governmental body, does its fair share of silly stuff, so every one in a while someone has to come along and scream that the Emperor has no clothes, so to speak. That person, on Bagby Street, is usually Councilmember Dave Martin, the Republican from District E (Kingwood).

Undoubtedly the best example of this asinine mindset was on the final day of deliberations on the vehicle-for-hire overhaul. The lobbyists for Uber and Lyft had convinced the council to allow their taxi companies slide by the regulators under a different category than Yellow Cab, Lone Star Cab and others, thus prompting vastly different regulations for each category despite the fact that the services provided the exact same service. This board split on the underlying principle of reforming taxi laws, but we unanimously agreed that two different systems for the same service was exceedingly dumb. Most egregiously, the proposals allowed for the so-called “TNCs” like Uber and Lyft to charge whatever they wanted while the other taxis would have their fares completely locked in by city hall.

We asked a lot of people to explain this at the time, and no one could. All we got were ad hominems and sanctimonious dribble. Evidently, Martin had some trouble understanding the proposal’s value too. After it became apparent that the proposal would pass, Martin worked quickly to submit a handwritten amendment — later approved — that allowed all taxis to charge variable rates. Whatever your opinion on taxi laws, you should at least agree that equity should be present within the regulatory scheme. Martin eventually abstained on the underlying ordinance — poignantly reminiscent of our own indecision —  but his noble dedication to even-handedness was not unnoticed.

That is the best anecdote to illustrate the quintessence of Martin’s time around the horseshoe. Always prepared, always willing to speak truth to power and always a bunch of fun to watch in action. And lest you think Martin is a show-horse, to borrow the colloquialisms used in councilmembers’ mailers, his commitment to constituent services is one of the strongest at city hall.

Martin’s district, with Kingwood on one end and Clear Lake on the other, faces unparalleled challenges in many ways. The geographic diversity, for one, is daunting. But Martin — as well as his ever-talented staff — have worked well to respond to the district’s unique needs.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

ROBERT GALLEGOS: ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Freshman on the city council often have quite an uphill climb to prove themselves in their first year in office. Proving as the exception to the rule, Councilmember Robert Gallegos, a Democrat from District I (East End), has done exactly. From his staff picks, which included young rising stars and former rivals, to his attention to detail at council meetings, Gallegos has proven himself as a positive addition to the council.

He has been a dependable ally of the mayor, by and large, but Gallegos has also begun setting himself apart. On the NDO, which originally only applied to employers with at least 50 employees, Gallegos spearheaded the amendment that lowered the threshold to 15, drawing the ire of the Greater Houston Partnership in the process. On vehicles for hire, he broke with the administration to champion 24/7 commercial insurance for all taxis, a priority of ours. All in all, look for Gallegos to be going places in the next few years.

RICHARD NGUYEN: PROFILE IN COURAGE

When Councilmember Richard Nguyen, hailing from District F (Little Saigon), defeated the two-term incumbent in 2013, few expected a very newsworthy representative. Little was known about him, but when he interviewed with us during the campaign (one of his few public comments), he disclosed his affiliation was a registered Republican because he believed “strongly in the United States Constitutions [sic].” Needless to say, he was not considered a very likely vote for an ordinance extending non-discrimination to LGBT people.

But Nguyen surprised us. In a heartfelt moment, Nguyen described his emotional journey in coming to a decision to support the NDO, in part because of his responsibility to be a good father to his young daughter. Later, Nguyen — becoming more and more affiliated with Parker — took a further step and officially became a member of the Democratic Party.

No doubt, he will be challenged this year for that brave stand. And while the other details of Nguyen’s first year in office haven’t been extraordinary, that special moment alone was. A courageous act for a courageous representative that his district should be proud of.

THE BULL OF THE BAGBY

MICHAEL KUBOSH: THE PEOPLE ARE THE CITY

Councilmember Michael Kubosh, the Republican representing the third At-Large position, has two main principles as an officeholder that guide how he votes. First, follow the law. Second, follow the people. A successful bail bondsman by trade, he possesses an erudite legal knowledge that could put many attorneys to shame.

This first principle was exemplified best during the vehicle-for-hire debates. New entrants, such as Uber and Lyft, began operating illegally months before the actual council debate. The rogue operators openly flaunted the law of the land, then absurdly asked for a more agreeable set of laws (that they would then supposedly follow). Kubosh would have none of this. In every public session on this issue, he made a point of reminding all who would listen that the new taxis were operating illegally. It is not a very hard principle to grasp, but it appeared lost on most of his contemporaries. In the council meetings following Uber and Lyft’s respective legalization, Kubosh has not lost sight of this pesky fact. Week after week, he inquires as to the adjudication of citations issued to Uber and Lyft drivers while they were operating illegally.

But the second principle is the more fascinating one. Kubosh could be described as a populist, in that he values direct democracy above most else. He first got well known in municipal politics in 2010 after he organized opposition to Red Light Cameras, and successfully spearheaded a referendum against their use. When the council passed asinine restrictions on feeding the homeless in 2012, Kubosh also became a leader in the push the see a referendum on that issue. And now, with the NDO, Kubosh is hoping for the people to voice their opinions on that issue.

This board is not a big fan of voting on civil rights. We disagreed with his vote against the NDO, but his reasoning is consistent and admirable nonetheless. In a day and age where our politics is dominated by ideologues, Kubosh is quite literally the furthest thing from it.

He listens to the people, whatever they say. In the age old dispute of “Delegate” versus “Trustee” systems of representatives, first formulated by Edmund Burke, Kubosh has firmly taken to the latter option. He’s bold, he’s unpredictable and he’s fearless. And while he certainly hasn’t made a friend of Parker, he’s earned our respect.

Now, the rumor is that Kubosh could challenge Congressman John Culberson, a Republican from the 7th district. We’d love to see him in congress, but city hall would certainly lose out.

The Texpatriate Editorial Board is comprised of George Bailey of Boston, Noah M. Horwitz of Austin and Andrew Scott Romo of New Orleans. Editorials represent a majority opinion of the voting board.

Kubosh for Congress?

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Texpatriate reports that a concerted effort has begun to draft City Councilmember Michael Kubosh (R-At Large 3) into running for congress, specifically within the 7th District. Kubosh would challenge the incumbent congressman, John Culberson, in the Republican primary, if he were to run. Kubosh’s office did not immediately return a request for comment, but sources close to the councilmember confirmed that he is intently thinking over the decision to run and he has specifically not ruled it out.

Granted, the 2016 primary is still more than a year away, and a whole lot can happen between now and then. But Kubosh would instantaneously have the superb name recognition needed to run a credible campaign against Culberson, who is not exactly a sterling representative of his constituents.

Culberson, a former state representative first elected to congress in 1998, is an astonishingly lightweight politician. In most sessions, he introduces only a handful of pieces of legislation (sometimes none at all) and does little to nothing to see those bills through the process. His sole claim to fame is grandstanding against the proposed Richmond Avenue light rail line, which he has successfully blocked through bullying, intimidation and dirty tactics for many years. Even though the area in question is no longer in his district (it is in Congressman Ted Poe’s), he has gone to possibly unconstitutional lengths to deny federal funds for light rail expansion. He has also, more recently, set his sights on blocking a bus rapid transit line on Post Oak Road in Uptown.

Ostensibly, this is because of a dedication to property rights. But in literally any other instance, Culberson is a lousy defender of the people against claims of eminent domain, namely when the Katy Freeway was recently expanded. It is obvious he sheds crocodile tears on this issue. Sources close to Kubosh, on the other hand, intimate that he would be more amenable to light rail expansion, much like Poe.

All this is to say that Kubosh would be a remarkable improvement just as a result of not being the incumbent. But since taking office on council in January, Kubosh has served in his own right as an effective and well-intentioned officeholder. Whether or not you agree with him on specific issues, his dedication to the job is nearly unmatched among his colleagues.I have, overall, been a big fan of his tenure and would be most excited to see him run for congress.

A bail bondsman by trade, Kubosh first got his start in politics by organizing the successful referendum effort against red-light cameras. He later lead the charge against an asinine ordinance that criminalized feeding the homeless on public property. Historically associated with Republican causes, many within the political establishment feared that he would be a right-wing rabble-rouser on the council. However, his tenure has proven to be anything but, as he has become a steady, compassionate and articulate voice on the council.

I’d like to see Kubosh in Washington. But, given the choice between Kubosh and Culberson, I’ll pull out all the stops to retire the incumbent congressman.

Texpatriate endorses in CD7

In previous editorials, this board has lamented the sorry state that Congress is in today. Invariably, we criticized the Republican majority for their hypocrisy, malice and obstinate attitude. We think Congressman John Culberson of the 7th District exemplifies all three of these poor qualities, and that voters would be wise to toss him out of office in favor James Cargas, the Democratic candidate.

In this western Houston suburban district, which was once held by former President George H.W. Bush at the start of his political career, Culberson has held office in 2001. Previously, Culberson served in the Texas House of Representatives for fourteen years.

Now, if you were not aware that Culberson has been present in Houston politics for well over a decade, you would be forgiven. Culberson apparently no longer lives in Houston, given how little time he actually spends in the district. Nor is his participation in Congress especially noteworthy; in his seven terms in Congress, he has only introduced a handful of bills, and even fewer have actually gone anywhere of consequence. As Texas Monthly would call it, Culberson’s level of participation in the political process is virtually indistinguishable from his tables and chairs.

Of course, when Culberson does participate in the process, it isn’t much better. Perhaps the most infamous example of Culberson’s meddling is with the expansion of the Metro Light Rail on Richmond Avenue. Despite overwhelming community support, Culberson has stood in the way of expansion for the needed mass transit project. He cloaked his small-minded opposition to mass transit as faux-grassroots support of the community. Culberson has even taken this position to its absurd extreme by passing a specific amendment in a transportation bill that denies Federal funding for the expansion project, an action that even drew the ire of fellow Republican Congressman Ted Poe.

And, it almost goes without saying, this board strongly disagrees with many of Culberson’s core political views, including those on social policies, immigration and foreign policy.

Considering all these grievances we have with Culberson, it was a welcome respite to find such an experienced, qualified and sensible opponent in James Cargas. An attorney with the City of Houston, Cargas has a broad background in Oil & Gas that makes him an ideal representative for the centrist district. Furthermore, Cargas shows an expansive and impressive breadth of political knowledge on the pertinent issues. We thoroughly believe that he is more than ready for prime time.

We agree with Cargas on Metrorail expansion, as well as the typical laundry list of political flashpoints. However, perhaps most importantly, we think that he would be an amazing communicator with his prospective constituents, a very welcome change from the incumbent. In a possible Cargas tenure, the people –and not the special interests– would be put above all else.

The residents of District 7, including three members of this board, have a very simple choice to make. Either continue along with a Congressman that shows minimal-effort and maximum-malice on most issues, or pick an alternative that does not. We are wholeheartedly going with the latter.

The Texpatriate Editorial Board is comprised of Noah M. Horwitz & Olivia Arena of Austin, George Bailey of Boston, Luis Fayad of College Station and Andrew Scott Romo of New Orleans. Editorials represent a majority opinion of the voting board.

Texpatriate endorses in CD2

Editorial note: A previous version of this editorial inadvertently misspelled Mr Letsos’ first name. We have fixed the typo with apologies to Mr Letsos.

Texas’ 2nd Congressional District is a remarkably unique creature. Historically situated in deep East Texas, it has been occupied by some of the great behemoths of Texas politics, namely Jack Brooks and Charlie Wilson. In 2004, under the stewardship of Tom DeLay, the Texas Legislature gerrymandered the district into an entirely new creation, combining swaths of East Texas with not only northeastern Harris County, but the working class neighborhoods of Beaumont. A prominent Criminal District Judge from Houston, Ted Poe, received the Republican nomination and handily defeated Congressman Nick Lampson, the Democrat who had represented the Beaumont area for many years.

This board has always been cautious about Poe’s tenure as a Congressman. All in all and most generously, it is best characterized by relentless adherence to majoritarian principles and interests of constituents. Still, we have historically been impressed by his steadfast dedication to justice. As a District Judge, overseeing felonious cases, Poe was renowned for handing down bizarre sentences that “fit the crime,” including requiring thieves to march around the establishments they store from with signs notifying the public of their crimes.

Perhaps most importantly, Poe has been a tireless advocate against human trafficking. Specifically, this board has been wowed by his introduction of the Justice for Victims of Human Trafficking Act in this most recent session of Congress. The bill increases appropriations for Federal law enforcement agencies to fight the heinous crimes and increases penalties for all those involved with the despicable practice. It has unanimously passed the House of Representatives, under Poe’s guidance, and is now waiting for action in the Senate.

Furthermore, Poe has incessantly been a valued representative to his constituents, even in areas not necessarily prone to voting for him. During 2011 redistricting, the 2nd District was rearranged once again, with the East Texas and Beaumont precincts being swapped out for inner-city Houston, namely Montrose and Timbergrove, two Democratic neighborhoods. This board has been particularly impressed with how Poe has been receptive to his new constituents desires, unlike their previous Congressman, John Culberson.

While Culberson continues to be at the behest of special interests trying to stymie an invaluable expansion of Light Rail throughout Montrose, Poe calmly polled his constituents and –upon learning they overwhelmingly supported expansion– began fighting for their interests. Poe sets an example for all his contemporaries, Democratic or Republican.

Of course, we are not without our criticisms. Poe is sadly somewhat right-wing on many social issues, and his views on immigration and foreign policy are sadly out of touch. However, even in representing these poor positions, Poe manages to successfully channel the desires of his constituents.

While we like Poe’s Democratic opponents, Niko Letsos, we believe he simply lacks the experience for Congress. The job requires someone without the need for on-the-job training, as well as an individual with a complex grasp of the myriad issues facing this State and this Country. While we may give Letsos the benefit of the doubt on the former, even a cursory glance over his website will show a somewhat superficial grasp of the issues. We likely agree with Letsos on some issues over Poe; predominantly those aforementioned social issues. However, this election ultimately comes down to a decision on experience and engagement. This board believes Poe decisively possesses both.

Noah M. Horwitz wrote an individual addendum to this editorial
I share my good friend Andrew’s views on the positive qualities Poe brings to his district, as well as the concerns over Letsos’ inexperience in the realm of politics. However, I do believe that he undervalued the importance of issues themselves.

Poe is a great representative for his people, but should this publication merely validate what is popular and not what is right? I disagree with Poe on abortion, on gay marriage, on Obamacare, on immigration reform, on taxes and on the general way that Congress should be run. These are significant points for me and, if I were to live in Poe’s district, they would make voting for him difficult.

Obviously, it would be easy for Letsos to say that he disagrees with Poe on the flashpoints while sharing his commitment to ending human trafficking. All the members of the House ostensibly shared that commitment, but it took Poe to actually craft a bill that attempts to solve a very terrible problem. Poe’s go-getter attitude on this issue and others is, in my opinion, his strongest attribute.

I don’t know how I would vote if I lived in Poe’s district. I honestly cannot see myself voting for the Republican in good faith, given their position in national politics. Alas, I don’t live in the 2nd district. My good friend Andrew does, though, so I will listen to what he has to say.

The Texpatriate Editorial Board is comprised of Noah M. Horwitz & Olivia Arena of Austin, George Bailey of Boston, Luis Fayad of College Station and Andrew Scott Romo of New Orleans. Editorials represent a majority opinion of the voting board.

Culberson goes on a racist rant

Roll Call magazine, a very trustworthy source, reports that Congressman John Culberson (R-Houston), my home representative, has gone on an appalling rant of breathtakingly offensive proportions. According to a House staffer who leaked the story, Congressman went off on an elevator ride in between meetings when he lamented the fact that museums were being built to commemorate African-Americans or Latinos. Per his reasoning, since there was no Federal Government memorial to Czech-Americans, it would be unfair to dedicate museums to drastically unappreciated and ignored portions of our history (this is a little inaccurate, as Texas itself is riddled with Czech museums, including one just down the road from his constituency). This reminds me of the oft-repeated, pseudo-racist claim that there should not be a Black History Month since there is no White History Month.

Furthermore, Culberson sarcastically stated that a museum honoring the struggles of women in this country could be “OK” if only because “it’s important for little girls.” The comments appalled the staffer, who quickly called into Roll Call remaining anonymous. He was appalled that such a narrow worldview would be advanced by such a man as Culberson, a public servant who has been entrusted to represent all of his constituents.

Click here to read the full implications, including comments by his opponent!

Texpatriate endorses in CD7 Primary

We are not fans of Congressman John Culberson (R-Houston). In addition to being mean-spirited and ignorant of many of the most sensitive issues facing our country (and his district), he is just a lousy congressman. From being nowhere to be found throughout his district to introducing just a handful of bills throughout his long tenure in office, he is definitely one of the most unaccountable officeholders in the Houston areas. Irrespective of one’s political views, we believe one would be hard pressed to not acknowledge that countless men and women would do the job better than Rep. Culberson.

Unfortunately, Rep. Culberson did not draw an opponent in the Republican primary and the district is so heavily gerrymandered that Democratic victory in the general election is close to impossible. That being said, we believe there is only one candidate with the needed experience and skillset to run a competent campaign against the incumbent. This board strongly believes that candidate is James Cargas.

A lawyer with the City Attorney’s office, Mr Cargas has strong expertise within the government, and provides a working knowledge of exactly what a Congressperson would do. We believe, if elected, he would require no “on-the-job” training, so to speak. In comparison, Mr Cargas’ opponent, Lissa Squiers, has concerned us with some rookie mistakes she has made on the campaign trail.

Click here to read the full endorsement!

CD7 Primary spat

In Harris County, there are very few contested races in the Democratic primary. One of the big exceptions is in the 7th Congressional District, currently held by Congressman John Culberson. The district, a longtime Republican stronghold once held by George Bush, stretches from Jersey Village to Meyerland. In 2014, there will be two candidates vying to face off against Culberson on the Democratic line in November: James Cargas and Lissa Squiers. Both ran in 2012, and after knocking out a third candidate, advanced to a runoff election. Cargas defeated Squiers in the primary runoff with 58% of the vote, before going on to lose to Culberson in the general election by the lopsided margin of 61-36. Needless to say, whomever wins this primary is achieving little more than a Pyrrhic victory.

Cargas has now begun to launch rather harsh attacks against Squiers, his opponent in the Democratic primary. In a recent press release, Cargas alleged that she has maliciously and nefariously avoided filing disclosures with the Federal Election Committee (FEC). He went on to lament such alleged impropriety, and even compared Squiers unfavorably to Steve Stockman.

Click here to read Cargas’ full statement as well as Squiers’ response!