Whitmire Makes the Case for Molly Cook for Texas Senate, Part II

The January 31, 2022 candidate forum featuring John Whitmire and Molly Cook attracted such a crowd that the organizers – South Asian American Voter Empowerment (SAAVETX) along with the West U and Bellaire Dems – had to open an overflow “room” for viewing on YouTube. Zoom was too full.

If you have time to watch the full video, or read the transcript, you should. Go to YouTube for the video. And you can download a transcript I created here.

A note on the transcript. I used an online automatic transcription tool to get it all down, but it it still a little rough. This copy I’ve linked has timestamps, so if you see something that isn’t clear and context doesn’t suggest the proper transcription, you can go to that point in the video and listen. I’m not attempting to hide anything but not fixing the whole transcript – I simply don’t have time.

Now, to the highlights. Or lowlights.

Just as in the Off the Kuff interview I wrote about, once again, the major takeaways from this forum are:

  • That John Whitmire no longer has a proactive agenda or creative ideas for how to overcome gridlock in Austin, and that in the face of Dan Patrick’s autocratic style, his tenure doesn’t actually mean much other than the empty symbolism of the title Dean of the Senate.
  • That Whitmire is so focused on the tactics that he fails to make connections between issues and ignores the value and importance of addressing explicitly how ongoing racist vitriol and widening economic disparities are the direct consequence of business as usual.

He is completely bogged down in the day-to-day tactics of how the right stirs up faux outrage over imagined threats to distract us from the momentum they’ve created for a sharp move toward autocracy and away from representative democracy.

He regularly says things that reveal his analysis of key issues is dated and siloed. For example, yes, the right’s Critical Race Theory tantrum is part of a strategy to undermine confidence in public schools (see transcript at approximately 10:05). But it is much bigger than that and in fact, is part of the right’s full-court press to undermine our foundational policy of free speech as written in the First Amendment, while at the same time, othering and dehumanizing Black people to attack the expansion of who counts in “We, the People” that was codified in places such as the Fourteenth Amendment.

He continues to blame other people for not doing enough to stop what’s happening in Austin. Once again, at 26:07, hs calls slams hope the point that for things to change, “the Hispanic proud population has to be more engaged.”

Once again, when asked how things can change (approx. 48:19), he falls back on stories from decades ago about one time when he said something to some other elected officials.

Whitmire: [Politics] is not a play thing. It’s not a popularity contest. We have to get young people involved. We have to get minorities involved. We have to continue to double down, fighting the Republicans and letting everyone know that elections matter. In ’98, I think it was Sheila Jackson Lee had me, Sylvester [Turner], who was a state rep, [U.S. Rep.] Gene Green, the north side elected officials. We met in ’98 and Sheila was concerned. There wasn’t a lot of energy in the African American community.

He tries to claim credit for things he’s actually taken very little leadership on. When most members of the Texas Democratic delegation fled the state to protest voter suppression bills, Whitmire notably stayed behind. In the forum (approx. 45:00), he refers to how he helped Senator Alvarado in her symbolic* filibuster against the voter suppression tactics. As Molly Cook points out (approx. 50:34), he may have supported her, but his name wasn’t on any actual legislative alternatives.

At the same time, this long-serving government official who has been signing off on regular campaign finance reports every year he’s been in office feigns ignorance over who, in fact, is giving him money. Cook points out (approx. 1:04):

Cook: I will point out that as the chair of the [Criminal Justice] committee, Senator Whitmire, between 2013 and 2016, accepted $25,000 in campaign contributions from private prisons, some which are still associated with incarcerating folks at the border. So I am fully committed to remaining transparent, to upholding ethics of campaign contributions and campaign finance so that I can actually represent the will of the people and work against for-profit prisons. I promise never to accept a dime from a for-profit prison.

Given the opportunity to respond, Senator Whitmire (approx. 1:06:41) says:

Whitmire: I haven’t, I haven’t taken [money from private prison companies] and I don’t monitor it. It, but I haven’t taken contribution from the private industry since the dates that she mentioned. I, uh, her, obviously her opposition research is <laugh> is getting her information that I haven’t kept up with. Cause it’s not relevant. We’re not taking those contributions now, nor are we taking NRA money. And when the Republican party went so far hard, right. We just said, enoughs enough. And we do not receive those contributions or ratings

Important to note that Cook was very clear in defining the date range. She wasn’t misconstruing anything.

I would submit that someone who claims he doesn’t monitor his campaign donations but does say that he knows he’s not taking those contributions is perhaps trying to have it both ways. The moderator clarifies that as far as he knows, at least, he’s not taking such contributions. This doesn’t change the fact that during his recent tenure as Dean of the Senate, and thus the highest-ranking Democratic official in the state, he saw no conflict in taking those donations.

He’s continuing to promote public-private partnerships that abdicate government responsibility while ignoring long-term, systemic issues. He makes a very cavalier observation (approx. 51:57), after talking about having Buc-ee’s, the privately-owned chain of gas station/convenience stores located primarily in rural areas along interstates agreeing in theory to add electric vehicle charging to their sites, that if we had some electric Ford trucks, the next time we have a big freeze, people could stay warm plugging their houses into their trucks for a few hours of power.

WHAT? People literally died in that freeze. Strong-arming a utility company to install a few electric car charging stations at the GOP-donor-owned Buc-ee’s stores in places like Cypress, Baytown, and Pearland won’t do a damn bit of good to anyone living inside Beltway 8 in Houston who has to rely on an hours-long bus commute just to get to a job that pays an hourly-but-not-living wage.

In her response to Whitmire’s ‘let’s let private industry take care of this’ response, Cook shows why she has impressed so many people. Her answer demonstrates a deep understanding for the complexities and interconnectedness of policy issues:

Cook at 52:51: While I am supportive of switching from fossil fuels to electric vehicles, we cannot act like EVs are the answer to our transportation problems or to our climate change problems. EVs are still single occupancy vehicles. They still will not reduce traffic and they will not necessarily make us any safer. You still have a person behind the wheel. Um, it’s really, really important to emphasize the class disparities and access to environmental and to electric vehicles as well. We have to talk about public transit. So while I am supportive of making it easier for folks to drive EVs around adding charging stations, lowering taxes on EVs and, um, providing incentives for those things, I really don’t like to talk about them without talking about public transit and first mile last mile, because that will have a real impact on climate change, a real impact on reducing emissions and also allow us to stop extracting the things that we need to create these batteries that come from other countries. So, uh, I just wanna point out that we really have to shift the paradigm around single occupancy vehicles to make and shape the kind of change we want to see in Texas in a way that’s sensitive to those who cannot afford to drive a car.

I encourage you to read the transcript, or better yet, listen to the recording of the forum, so you can capture the tone and nuance.

Given the number of text messages I got during the forum, I was not the only one who noticed that John Whitmire is starting to sound like a petulant child annoyed that the grown-ups, particularly women, are trying to hold him accountable for what his plan is for moving ahead rather than allowing him to rest on his laurels to take a victory lap before ducking out to run another race for another office.

One notable exchange exposes the nasty edge to his attitude:

Neha Madhani (00:43:36): Senator Whitmire, you’ve had 38 years in Austin.

John Whitmire (00:43:42): Yes. Ma’am

Neha Madhani (00:43:45): Tell me how we in District 15 should have faith in you in you that you will push a Democratic agenda and, um, and be our representative, even though you may be considering running for mayor. Tell us why we should put our faith in you–

[Whitmire cuts her off before she completes her sentence]

John Whitmire (00:44:08): Because I told you, I believe public service is a calling. I am dedicated to my job. I have six- and eight-year-old grandchildren. I run government for their future. That’s the test I’ll put it to. There is no reason to have my experience if you don’t use it. We have major challenges. Next session will be worse and meaner than the last one. They have not stopped. They’re emboldened, they’ll carry forward. They did control redistricting. They’ve got the courts on their side. I–

Neha Madhani (00:44:41): I, I understand understand, and you you’ve been there for 38 years. What makes it–

John Whitmire (00:44:46): Because I have a record. You can look at my record of accomplishment.

Neha Madhani (00:44:49): …what makes this next year different? Why will it be different if we vote are voting for you? What will make it different for us?

Keep reading, or listening.

I suspect you will find his response as underwhelming as I did.

And allow me to add one ore thing I heard in his response that I found singularly insidious and ugly.

Whitmire refers to his grandchildren, and suggests that his public service is on their behalf. That’s lovely and we should all be concerned about the world we are collectively leaving behind for those who follow us.

But his mention of children follows a familiar pattern in politics when one candidate is a woman who is not married, does not have children, or has spoken publicly about a decision not to have a child at a given point in time. Politicians never seem to talk about children unless they are trying to insinuate that their opponent is somehow not the “right kind” of woman if she does not have children.

I don’t know that he did this intentionally. And I know that many of his closest political allies and even long-time personal friends are women who are unmarried and not currently parents. Even the forum’s moderator had to point out her own mistake in how she was addressing the candidates. At 18:30, she apologizes for calling Molly Cook by her first name while giving John Whitmire the honor of his title.

But that just speaks to the point. Sexism is endemic, and particularly problematic in politics. We’ve all seen the stories about how women are treated at the legislature. How women staffers are preyed upon, dismissed, and undermined by men who hold positions of power over them.

Where was Whitmire when, again and again, stories bubbled up?

It not only rings hollow for me to hear him suddenly drag the procreative capabilities of his own offspring into his case for support, but it raises my hackles as a woman angry at the long-term, systemic discrimination women in Austin have faced and his lack of leadership in doing anything to change things.

All I hear in his tone and his inability to articulate a proactive agenda for leadership is the list of reasons that Molly Cook should be the next Senator for Texas District 15.

Please vote for her, and encourage your friends to as well. If we keep sending who we’ve always sent, we’re going to keep getting what we’ve been getting. And frankly, what that is is our asses kicked and our rights stripped away. That is unacceptable. That’s not the Texas I want, for his grandchildren or for anyone else.

*I call Sen. Alvarado’s filibuster symbolic because given the time left in the session, the GOP majorities in both houses, and the actual rules of the filibuster in the Texas Senate and the practical impossibility of any human being carrying one out for more than a day or two at the very longest, it was impossible that her effort could have stopped the bill. I do believe it was important inasumuch as it called attention to the issue, however, but it should be distinguished from times (such as the 2013 filibuster) when as a procedural tactic, it killed a bill.

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Whitmire Makes the Case for Voting for Cook in the State Senate District 15 Primary, Part I of II

Indefatigable blogger Charles Kuffner interviewed Senator John Whitmire earlier in January. More recently, Whitemire squared up against challenger Molly Cook in a forum hosted by SAAVETX West U/Bellaire Senate District 15.

Reviewing transcripts of both events, I realized that Senator Whitmire himself makes a pretty strong case for why Democrats in Senate District 15 should vote for ER nurse, policy wonk, and community organizer Molly Cook.

First, a note about the sources for the quotes I’ll highlight below.

The first is Off the Kuff, Texas’ longest-running progressive political blog, is authored by Charles Kuffner. His commitment to interviewing dozens upon dozens of Democratic candidates before primaries and elections is an incredibly valuable public service he provides for free. While he has clearly staked out the left end of the spectrum in terms of who he interviews, he pulls no punches and does not shy away from tough questions.

Here is a link to his interview with Whitmire.

The forum between Whitemire and Cook was co-sponsored by the West U and Bellaire Democratic clubs and SAAVETX. SAAVE is South Asian American Voter Empowerment, a statewide advocacy organization formed to increase the political influence of Texas’ progressive South Asian-American community through education, engagement, and empowerment.

The forum was moderated by Neha Madhani, a Pharmacy Clinical Practice Specialist with UTMB Corrrectional Managed Care, working with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, represented SAAVE as the moderator. Her 16 years’ experience with the policy and reality of care that incarcerated people in Texas receive made her the ideal moderator for these two candidates: Senator Whitmire, who has chaired the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee and has deep insight into what has shaped our state’s policies; Molly Cook, with a MSN/MPH from Johns Hopkins giving her both the policy chops and on-the-ground experience as an ER nurse, most recently in the Covid-19 era when systems are on the brink of collapse.

Here is a link to the forum on YouTube.

Note – both the interview and forum were recorded live and no transcripts were provided. I used an online service to produce my own transcripts. In the quotations below, I have tried to note approximate times and reproduce exactly what was said, leaving in ums and uhs. Whenever possible, I try to use the entire sentences and paragraphs, but the interview rambled. So, it may read a bit awkwardly, but if you read while listening along, you should be able to follow it very closely.

And now, John Whitmire, in his own words from his interview with Charles Kuffner. I will walk through the candidate forum in Part II of this blog post.

Question, from Kuffner: Did anything good come out of the last legislative sessions? And if so, tell me about it.

Whitmire at roughly 0:30 of the interview: [N]othing good came outta the session, except maybe a reality check that we’ve got a lot of work to do, uh, probably as bad a session as I’ve been a part of in the last 30, 38 years in the Senate. Uh, the partisanship is at an all time high. Uh, Patrick totally controls with his gavel. Uh, Senator Democrats are outnumbered 13. They change the rules on us again, so I can spend the afternoon telling you that, uh, it’s bad. It’s really bad, but it should motivate us to organize, organize, organize, register people, to vote, turn out and put a face on the election.

My commentary: Whitmire reviews some of the frustrations he felt with the most recent session, most of which were general comments about what didn’t go well, not specific to his own actions or committees, until this part of his answer. His comment about getting the committee refers to the fact that the Lt. Governor appointed him chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

Whitmire at 4:49: It, it was a frustrating session to me on criminal justice. I got the committee, but he [Lt. Gov.] pretty much diverted a lot of the hot issues or, or critical issues to [Republican Senator Joan] Huffman who got a new criminal justice, uh, the hell did she call her committee criminal justice, manage criminal justice. Hers is, uh, criminal justice.

Kuffner interjects: Ok, whatever it was called,, what was she working on?

Whitmire resumes: uh her version of criminal justice. Uh, yeah, she, she ran a hard, very tight conservative criminal justice committee. Uh, unlike mine.

My commentary: Whitmire went on for between 7 and 8 minutes and the only specific bills he mentioned were neither those he authored nor those that passed through his committee. He seemed intent upon driving home the point that Republican Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, the Senate’s presiding officer, worked at every turn to prevent Whitmire and other Democrats from advancing any legislation.

Whitmire often points out how much his seniority matters, and is proud of his leadership on of the Criminal Justice committee. But he also explains how the Lt. Gov. essentially undermined his authority by diverting many bills to a committee chaired by Republican Joan Huffman, and overall, by changing the senate rules, created a GOP supermajority that rendered any Democrat’s seniority or past power moot.

Kuffner’s next question, at about the 9-minute mark, turned into more of an introduction to the topic of disaster response with an invitation for Whitmire to respond, which he did. His response details how the Senate operated under Covid, and how tensions rose even higher after the January 6th attack on the US Capitol. Then, on to the February 2021 freeze.

At approximately the 13th minute, Whitmire turns to a specific post-freeze hearing with the ERCOT chair.

Whitmire at 13:06: And then you had the freeze, which we lost a week or two, changes subject matter. And the first hearing we had on that was, uh, a special, uh, freeze ERCOT committee hearing. Hancock, the chairman of business in commerce who got replaced in the middle of the session, cuz he wouldn’t follow instructions. Uh, chair starts it out. We had ERCOT director. And the first question I asked him was about global warming. Had they factored that into their planning da da [sic] Hancock shut me down. He said Whitmire, we’re not taking up global warming issues and I wish it was our first meeting. Everybody’s still kind of feeling himself. I wish I, I would’ve struck back at him and said, well, not now when, because my phone started lighting up and his phone kept lighting up. So we, we joked about later, we, we should have developed that issue from our different standpoints.

My commentary: Once again, Whitmire tries to tell a story about the impact he had in the session, and the impact seems to be that he tried to raise the issue of global warming and how that factors into disaster planning, but that he was shut down by a Republican senator, and then later joked, presumably with that same senator, about how maybe they should have developed that argument “from our different standpoints.” I guess we’ll never know what would have happened had he chosen to keep pushing instead of texting with his Republican colleague.

Whitmire continues at 14:29 after circling back to Covid response after his failure to start a conversation on global warming: And of course I can remember when the Democrats were in charge. I can remember I could run anything on criminal justice I wanted pretty much through the Senate cause they would listen to me, but now your hands are tied.

My commentary: Well, I can remember when I fit into a size 8 black ultrasuede suit from Lord & Taylor, but that was during Ann Richards’ term as governor, and memories of those bad-ass times don’t do a damn thing in terms of what’s going on today.

Kuffner at 16:31: I mean, you’re talking about what the Senate is going to look like going forward. And I mean, you yourself are sort of, you know, one foot in and one foot out you’re, you’re, you’re running for reelection, but you’ve also announced that you’re gonna run for mayor in Houston in 2023.

Whitmire: Well, I’ll have, I will have both feet in the legislature. If I’m fortunate to go, we work daily on Senate issues, constituent services. I still get about 300 prison inmate letters a month, work with their family. So there there’s no way I could do my job. One foot in one foot out. I’m focused on being the best Senator I can be. And my seniority belongs to my district. I really truly really believe that I go there for them. It’s their seniority. And, uh, I should be judged on what I can get done. Sometime it’s through networking, uh, voter suppression, uh, early on, they were going to videotape allow videotaping of voters. And I got up there and did a passionate speech that you just can’t do that you haven’t thought this through. There are human traffic victims, there’s domestic violence victims. They don’t even want anybody to know where they live and you’re gonna videotape where they’re coming to vote. So they struck that down. So experience matters. Uh, there’ll be a time to run for mayor and I’ll plan to do that with the same passion that I, that I run and work in the Senate.

Kuffner: I mean, after this last year, any concern that there might be a whole bunch of special sessions getting in the way of, of running for mayor. I mean, you, you have no control over–

Whitmire: That, obviously. Yeah. But I just won’t let it get in the way, uh, you know, Sylvester [Turner] did had the same model that I have, uh, be a good, and he was very involved that session. I’ll be very involved. That’ll be my top priority. Uh, I’m a public servant. I go where the public needs me and I really, really mean that they’ll need me next session. I’ll be chairing a committee. I’ll be on finance, which is long hours. And then the mayor’s race will begin after the session in, in all earnest.

My commentary: Since Kuffner’s interview, Democrat Chris Hollins has officially launched his campaign. Whitmire doesn’t get to tell people to put everything on hold to wait for him to finish up in Austin.

The mayor’s race isn’t waiting until the end of May 2023 to get started. It has begun.

Whitmire again points out that his seniority and chairmanship will matter, but he has repeatedly up until this point in the interview talked about how the Lt. Governor is going to play an even more brutal level of partisan hardball, how he’ll have recruited even more conservative and doctrinaire senators to fill some of the seats longer-serving Republicans who at least remember the old days of moderate bipartisanship. Nothing Whitmire has said in the interview could lead any reasonable person to conclude that the 2023 session will be magically better for Democrats than 2021.

Later in the interview, Whitmire has some advice a group he refers to as “the GLBT,” by which he means the Houston GLBTQ+ Political Caucus:

Whitmire at 25:26: We’ve gotta get the democratic base fired up. We’ve got to, you know, I was talking to GLBT the other day, they were screening me. I said, you know, we were talking about how we can do a better job of organizing. They need to get a, a sustaining member effort going. I mean, there ought to be a lot of straight folks that are members of the GLBT caucus because equality affects all of us, you know? So, uh, we just gotta organize.

My commentary: I can’t speak on behalf of the GLBTQ+ Caucus – which endorsed him, by the way – and I know that anecdote isn’t the singular of data, and I don’t want to make this about me, but as a straight, white, cisgender woman who has been a sustaining member of the Caucus for a while now, I can confirm that there has, in fact, been a sustaining member program going for quite some time.

Whitmire goes on to point out some other people he feels are letting down the side when it comes to organizing Democrats:

Whitmire at 30:56: We keep waiting for the proud Hispanic population, young, to get registered and vote. Of course, now they’re beginning to vote in the valley and they’re voting the wrong way. So young people have to get involved. Everybody should become a regular voter. You shouldn’t have anybody skipping election, whether it’s young folks or working folks, labor, we talked about at lunch day. They’re just not quite the powerhouse.

My commentary: Also dropping the ball per Whitmire – “Hispanics,” especially those in the Valley, and Labor. Ahem. Ok, then. Well.

My favorite comment has to be when he points out a time when he, himself, was engaged in some rallying of the troops:

Whitmire, at 31:43: It’s been my experience. No one, no community gets fired up like when they’re trying to put a landfill or a batch plant in the neighborhood, in those instances, everybody comes out to the protest rally. So we gotta make these elections like somebody’s trying to put a landfill or a plant in her back door cause people will get fired up, but you can’t get fired up about that and you can go back and say, well, the election and

I can remember 98, Sheila, me and Gene Green, Sylvester, David Pateranella, all the north side folks in the fall of ’98, met at, uh, AAA [Diner] on Airline and Sheila had asked for it, cause she was concerned there wasn’t near the energy in the election. And I finally just spoke up and said, well, why would African Americans be fired up? We’re trying to lock up all their sons. We’re cutting them off every benefit that they need. So, you know, they’ve given up on elections as being the solution.

My commentary: Did you catch that? Hot off the presses! Whitmire met with some other northside Democratic elected officials in (triple-checks recording and transcript) 1998 to address concerns that Democrats weren’t turning out the base.

Nineteen-ninety-eight. 1-9-9-8.

That was 24 years ago – almost a quarter of a century ago. The last millennium.

Well, I can attest to the fact that any meal at the Triple A was memorable, so should we give him the benefit of the doubt? I mean, those biscuits, amirite?

Kuffner followed up to give him the opportunity to talk about some more recent efforts.

Kuffner at 32:28: I’ve been asking everyone that I’ve interviewed as, you know, as a cause we’re all trying to appeal to a Democratic primary audience. What, what are you going to do to help get Democrats out in the fall and win elections? You, you got a lot of money in your, in your campaign, treasury. What, what are you gonna do to help get people out the vote, give recent

Whitmire: John Whitmire: What I’m gonna do, whatever it takes, I’m helping, uh, candidates says we talk, uh, I’ve actually thought about re-instituting back in the seafarers in the nineties, I founded, it is where we had our breakfast. In the fall, the democratic candidates duplicate a lot of their activities. You know, everybody’s got a sign crew. Everybody’s going to this church. So in, in about ’96, I started holding a breakfast, sponsored it, which I’ll do again.

My commentary: Given a chance to mention something more recent than 1998 that he and his massive campaign war chest have done to support area-wide Democratic candidates and organizing, Whitmire swings for the fence and lands in the 1990s again. 1996, to be exact. And speaking of fences, coordinating sign crews just might be a bit lower on the list of turnout priorities than things like hiring paid canvassers, but what do I know?

Anyway, um, sir? Are you ok?

Whitmire, still digging that hole at 34:14: We beat ourselves. Because we do outnumber the other side. If we register and vote and then number two, we to keep her eye on who the real enemy is. Who’s the problem. It’s not, it’s not factions of the Democratic party, but it’s coalition building, you know, black, brown, we got, we gotta let the black and brown community know we’re in this together. Labor’s gotta get fired up. The gay lesbian transgender in the community’s gotta get fired up. If we do that, what am I gonna do? Use my experience, my contacts and, uh, resources to, to pull that off. I just think it’s critical.

My commentary: Hey, Democratic base, did you get all that? If you get fired up, then Whitmire will use his experience, contacts, and resources to help.

Really, I encourage you to listen to the interview in its entirety.

Let me be clear. For a very long time, Senator Whitmire has worked hard on behalf of his district in Austin. He has stepped forward to lead on issues from time to time, and he is a reliable Democratic vote. That’s all great and we appreciate that.

But he is also very loud about the fact that things are different now. That he has been locked in a box and ignored. And in a legislative body where the minority party has very little power, that reliable Democratic vote can come from any Democrat, the Dean or a freshman. So why not bring in a new senator and let her start building her own power base, her own seniority?

Everyone knows Whitmire is focused on his future in Houston. The Texas Tribune reported last November that throughout the 2021 legislative session, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was already referring to the Senate Democrat with the second-longest record of service, Senator Zafferini, as the Dean-in-Waiting and making references to Whitmire’s mayoral race.

Come back soon for transcription and commentary on the candidate forum, in which, in the words of one person who watched it closely in real time, Molly Cook rolled up Senator Whitmire and smoked him. And now that I’ve watched it and read the transcript several times, I have to say, that’s a charitable description of what happened.

Posted in Houston, politics, progressive, Texas, Texas Progressive Alliance | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Judge Lina Hidalgo Stands Alone

Judge Hidalgo deserves more credit than she gets for her refusal to accept money from county vendors, because in a campaign that may well be decided by attack mailers and negative social media campaigns, her fundraising policy makes it much harder for her to bring her values to the voters. But she adopted the policy anyway as part of her commitment to transparency in county government.

The Houston Chronicle published Zach Despart’s fantastic exposé of just how much campaign cash flows from businesses awarded contracts from the county to the Harris County Commissioners Court that awards those contracts.

From 2020 through 2021, commissioners relied on county vendors — through political action committees, employees and their family members — for 79% of their campaign contributions while steering 93% of engineering, architecture, surveying and appraisal work to firms who contributed.

During that two-year period, this deep-pocketed donor class gave $5.9 million while commissioners — two Democrats and two Republicans — awarded their firms $310 million in work from the county’s engineering department and flood control district.

Kudos to the whole team on this, including those who did the info graphics. This is right up there with the ongoing dive into the infuriating disparities and loopholes in property tax law, and together, this is some of the most valuable reporting coming out of Texas right now.

To be clear, you could pick any two-year period going back who knows how long. This is not a new phenomenon, and these commissioners didn’t create this system. I have long heard rumors not just about county vendors, but the extended families of commissioners past and their own business ties to the court, nepotism be damned.

In almost every way, though, this system makes complete sense.

People give to people doing the work they care about. I’m a fundraiser by profession, so I know this in my bones. This is why you see the same lists of names giving to three or four animal welfare organizations, or a handful of museums, or politically-aligned candidates. That’s human nature.

Government exists in many ways, however, to make up for the shortfalls of human nature. We know ourselves too well! Like water, we find the path of least resistance.

We need government for things like public infrastructure and the common defense because, were we responsible for these things as individuals on the honor system, we’d never agree, most would opt out of contributing, and everything would fall apart.

Democracy has big first-week-of-January-gym-commitment energy.

So yes, it makes sense, even though any reasonable person could explain exactly why such a system creates the heavy, stinky odor of undue influence, infinitely harder to rinse out than the greasy reek of last night’s sizzling cast iron comal fajitas when you brush your hair the next morning.

Which is why Judge Lina Hidalgo, early in her tenure, acted with intention to change business as usual on this front. Shortly after taking office, she made her decision public:

Hidalgo, who campaigned on making county government more open to the public, said she will ask donors to certify they do not have a contract with the county and will not seek one within the fiscal year. 

Rumor has it her decision ruffled feathers left and right. Some laughed at what they perceived as her naïveté. Some quietly suggested she could have had more impact had she worked in advance with the commissioners, or at least some more likely to agree with her and thus more likely to vote with her, to implement a policy for the entire court.

But Judge Hidalgo knew the moment she won that she might have limited time to make change. Before she was even elected, after all, long-time Democrats from the School of Wait Your Turn Young Whippersnappers were whispering that she had taken their place by presuming to run for public office.

And Republicans like Dan Patrick and Ed Emmett drip with good ol’ boy disdain and clutch their teeny, tiny pearls every time they mention her. [And yes, Ed Emmett and Dan Patrick are both the same kind of Republican, Ed Emmett just hides it better, and thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.]

Hidalgo has noted the influence Governor Ann Richards, a woman she never met but whom she considers in some ways a mentor, had on her strategy. Richards regretted letting advice about the pace of change affect her decisions on how hard to push for certain changes, assuming she’d have more time in office and more political capital that would allow her to do more.

Judge Hidalgo explained she felt a sense of urgency to do as much as possible as soon as possible, and to take every opportunity to accomplish gargantuan tasks like bringing more transparency to county government.

Her decision may have been unpopular with the commissioners – although I’m sure their fundraisers were relieved there was no blanket policy, which would have had them scrambling to build new lists and pay even closer attention to the necessary tedium of compliance – but to many voters, it reinforced their support for the new energy she brought to the county.

I don’t want to downplay how powerful a piece of journalism this article is. The reporter very clearly refers to commissioners, and not the judge.

But other than in the caption of a photograph identifying her as Judge Hidalgo and referring to the others as commissioners, this distinction goes unremarked. Her decision, and the distinction between how she and her colleagues must raise funds (namely that she must rely in much greater numbers on smaller, individual donors, which is a more labor-intensive way to raise funds), comes near the end of the article.

I understand strategically why an author and editor would put this information near the end. The scandal, after all, is in how much of the commissioners’ funding comes from current vendors.

And, since Hidalgo’s commitment to transparency and determination to upset business as usual has lead to astonishingly long meetings of the court, requiring reporters to pack snacks and probably some to consider packing overnight bags, I can also imagine some being slow to shower her with attention for her position!

(One of my personal heroes, David Mincberg, earned that title for his willingness to leave meetings when the time on the agenda is up, whether or not the meeting has actually concluded. I long to implement that policy in my own life! Mincberg has done other great things for which I appreciate and respect him, but that commitment to working smarter not longer is high up there.)

But in all seriousness, I do believe it is notable that Judge Hidalgo has set the bar higher. That’s why I want to call this distinction out.

I will give credit where credit is due to those candidates who have opted to pledge they would follow her lead, while sympathizing with the difficulty of making the decision as a candidate whether or not to forgo funds you might need to win the seat for the party rather than lose it to the opposing party, and thus be in a position to do much more at the county level. This tension is playing out in the Democratic primary for Precinct 4 Commissioner between Ben Chou (adopting Hidalgo’s pledge) and Lesley Briones (not adopting at this time).

I can empathize with each candidate’s decision. Getting there is one thing, staying there to make the changes you want to make is another. I’d go the Hidalgo route, but then again, I’m not running.

Also notable and near the end of this article?

The law does not require county campaign finance reports to list donor employer and occupation information, something standard for federal campaign giving.

As Despart reports:

They also could list the occupations and employers of their donors. In addition, the county could create an online database of contributors, following the lead of the city of Houston, state and federal governments. Such a tool also could flag which contributors are employed by vendors, a crucial piece of information for the public.

Garcia and Ellis said they will not list the occupations of their donors on future disclosures because it is not required by law. They expressed support for a contributor database, but opposed flagging which donors are vendors.

Ramsey said he would continue to list his donors’ occupations, though he rejected the idea of creating a contributor database or disclosing vendor-donors.

“This is worth asking questions on, in the sense of being the most transparent as we can possibly can be with the public,” Ramsey said.

In politics, more sunlight might burn a few folks in the short-term, but in the end, it’s always better.

Election season is upon us now, and no one will change paths at this point. But I would hope that after the election, Democratic commissioners and the county judge might come together and decide to create a policy that will outlive them all, requiring that campaign finance reports list donors’ employees and professions, that donors sign a pledge that they have no current business and will not during the fiscal year before the county, and that the county create an easily-searchable public database like the one maintained by the Federal Election Committee.

In the meantime, if you admire the heavy lifting Judge Hidalgo is going in the face recalcitrance from allies and outright sexist and racist hostility from her opponents, give what you can, because every donation helps buy her more time to open government up that much more.

Posted in Houston, politics, progressive, Texas, Texas Progressive Alliance | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Ten Tips for Filming at Protests

Many times over the years, I have operated as a legal observer at protests. These days, this often means being a person documenting events on video. Legal observers in theory should be treated similarly to media, but do not have any special legal protections beyond those guaranteed private citizens in the First Amendment.

Don’t assume “I’m a legal observer” will get you special treatment or protection. Do assume people might assume you have information they want, so know where to refer people. Direct law enforcement or media to the march/rally/protest organizers. Do not speak on their behalf. Direct protesters who have information to report to the organizers or to groups. like the ACLU.

You’re there to be impartial, but if someone is hurt in front of you and no one else can help, stop filming and help! You’re neutral but you’re not a monster.

Ideally, you will have been trained in principles of nonviolent demonstrating prior to serving as a legal observer. It is mostly common sense, but as with anything, it helps to consider all of the possibilities ahead of time, when it is calm, so you can rely on training under pressure.

This advice is based on my experience using an iPhone to capture video, and my completely amateur level of experience as a photographer or videographer. Much of it would apply, I think, if you were using a Go Pro or some other mounted camera, or a larger and more sophisticated video recorder, but some things might change.

1 – Document the Action, Don’t Become the Action

Decide before attending a rally, march, or protest which role you want to play. Each has value. Your goal is to secure footage that, in the worst case scenario, could be used as evidence in court. You do not want to give anyone viewing it reason to question it. Shouting slogans or providing commentary behind basic who/where/when narration could cause someone to question the video.

You want to stand far enough away that you don’t get swept up in a group of marchers. You want to document interaction between police and marchers to create context and show the whole scene. When things are moving fast,  you might become surrounded from time to time. Move to another location.

Do not engage counter-protesters. Don’t engage anyone, really, but particularly those who have come to provoke a reaction, sometimes even a violent one. Be very, very careful when counter-protesters arrive.

I’ll repeat it—you are there to document the action, not be the action. Everyone has a cell phone. If something starts to happen, you can bet dozens of other people will whip out their phones to film, too. They may be closer. Their videos will be more helpful if you pull back and capture the context.

2 – Be Discreet

Again, your purpose is documentation for use at a later time. You’re going for candid shots, not formal portraits. You are not using your camera as a weapon or visible caution sign to shake in someone’s face. Do not walk aggressively toward a police officer holding your camera high and in front of you. Stand, filming with your camera in front of your chest or abdomen. That stance not only seems less aggressive, it steadies the camera.

Be mellow and seem disinterested. Be non-confrontational. Your goal is to capture what law enforcement does when they think no one is watching. If you are filming someone standing directly in front of you at noon, you can always turn your head so it looks like you’re checking out something at 10 o’clock or 2 o’clock. The officer is more likely to note where you are looking than the direction of your camera, especially if you are holding it low across your body.

3 – Narrate Key Information

This does not mean provide moment-by-moment narration. Ideally, you should remain quiet so your conversation does not become the focus of someone watching the video. But in the absence of landmarks, or in case of confusion, you might need to signpost what happened, who someone is, or where you are. Even better, however …

4 – Stand Still, Film Landmarks, Film Adjacent Areas & Things

I watched video purporting to be of a particular building in Houston. It didn’t look like that building to me, so I looked for landmarks. The video will make you dizzy, and even though it is seven minutes long, it never stops panning. There is no real way to tell where the video was taken other than the say-so of the person posting it.

Stand sill. Remember, you are documenting information so it can be used later. You’re not doing a tribute to Aaron Sorkin. Movement and shakiness as artistic devices are not helpful in this situation.

Hold the camera on things of note for at least ten seconds so people watching the video without a pause or slow-motion button can register what they are seeing. Film street signs, or the sign in front of a building that has a company name and address on it, then slowly pan to the next thing you are watching. Excellent tip from Larissa, who suggests you could even film a “menu of the day” with a date on it in a restaurant window to provide a 3rd party time-stamp.

The same applies if you are documenting what has happened to a marcher. If someone wants you to film them describing an incident, and they can stand next to a street sign or easy-to-identify building address or sculpture or fountain, show them in context then move in closer to record them talking. That documentation plus the time stamp in the film will show without question where someone was.

Don’t forget to document things as well as people. If you arrive early, document the police staging area and the protest site. If you film an area and there are no piles of bricks, it is going to be difficult for rumors about piles of bricks to carry any weight. And if you film police officers staging in an area where there are unsecured construction supplies, and the police are simply standing around not securing them, or leaving them unguarded, that tells a story as well.

Film the blocks near a demonstration to see what vehicles may be on hand for detaining or transporting those arrested.

5 – Film in Short Bursts

Don’t stop filming in the middle of the action, but if you are just documenting a situation before action seems imminent, consider filming in bursts of 2-3 minutes. That way, if you capture something critical, you needn’t scroll through 35 minutes of nothing happening to find it.

There are arguments to be made for continuous filming when things are moving quickly and happening. But 20 minutes of filming 20 officers holding a line, nearly motionless? You’re not doing Sorkin, but you’re also not doing Warhol’s Empire.

6 – Watch Your Back

You should keep your head on a swivel and be aware of your surroundings at all times. Things happen fast during demonstrations. If possible, stand or sit with your back to a wall or tree. If you are on stairs, or standing on a bench, be extra careful about what is behind you so nothing catches you by surprise. It’s even more helpful when you have someone else who has your back, so when possible …

7 – Film in pairs

I wish I could say that I am part of a two-person ninja squad that communicates like cops in a television show entering a dangerous area using hand signals and subtle head-nods to cover an area without exposing our backs, because how cool would that be?

It is helpful, of course, to film in pairs. You can watch each other’s backs, and you can capture two angles on a situation. Don’t get complicated, but it’s pretty easy to point and use hand signals if you are paying attention to each other.

Try not to walk up to your partner talking, as they may be capturing sound on something they are shooting and your talking will drown it out. Even worse if you walk up and say something that you wouldn’t want other people to hear in court. And approach from the side, so you do not end up featured in your partner’s video.

Hat tip to Larissa who remarks that it can be helpful to have a spotter as your partner who is not filming, but who is keeping an eye on things to help you know what to film next. This may be more helpful than filming in pairs. Consider a threesome? Two people filming and one spotter could work as well.

8 – Don’t Use Tripods or Selfie Sticks

This may seem counterintuitive, but this is not tourism, this is documenting a potentially dangerous situation in case the information is needed for a court case.

At a protest, never carry anything that police could construe as a weapon. Once they decide your umbrella, selfie stick, or tripod is a weapon, they can use that belief, as misguided or contrived as it may be, to justify coming at you with force. It’s also much easier to “accidentally” knock someone’s camera over if it is held up our out away from the person’s body. If you need a better angle, pull back and find elevated ground.

Recent events have shown over and over that law enforcement officers are armed, armored, and prepared to go on the attack. It bears repeating. Do not let them use your selfie stick as an excuse to claim you started the violence.

[By the way, this goes for all marchers. Use cardboard tubes instead of wooden dowels for signs. Don’t carry a wooden or metal flagpole. I hate saying don’t use an umbrella or parasol because they can be great in the blistering sun, but use a small, compact one rather than a giant wooden golf umbrella if you must. Better yet, get a giant hat.]

9 – Back Up and Title Your Files

Protect what you’ve filmed so that even if something happens to your phone, you still have what you’ve captured. You can sometimes upload automatically to Dropbox or another similar program. You can always use a secure messaging system to share videos with someone else in a different location.

When you get home after filming, and charge your phone, transfer the files and give them titles using some naming system that will make it easy to find the right video later. Some combination of date and location of the shot is what I use, like June 2 2020 Walker at Louisiana Street. Keep them together in one folder per event.

In a pinch, you can record on Facebook Live to preserve what you’ve recorded, but better to have experience and be intentional about doing that. I don’t have experience live-streaming so do not have great advice for doing that. And you might not want to do that…

10 – Think Carefully Before Posting Video to Social Media

When something goes down, everyone will whip out their phones, and many will post to social media.

You might capture something you want to post to social media, but I repeat once again, you are documenting what happened for the specific purpose of making a helpful record to be used in court.

This means that you have endeavored to capture information about people—close-ups of their faces, license plates, badge numbers. Consider before you upload a video to Facebook that from a strategic perspective, you might not want them to know what you captured.

You’ve also likely caught lots of detail about people participating in the march. Consider their safety before uploading a video to Twitter. You don’t want your carefully-shot video to be the reason a protester gets doxxed or fired.

You also don’t want your video to be deceptively edited or used in a nefarious fashion. I don’t have the skills to do it, but someone could easily take a video, record a new voice track to it, and completely change the meaning of what you have filmed. Don’t feed the trolls.

You can share video with others you trust to use it effectively and strategically in a way that will not jeopardize anyone’s safety. Those people and entities might include:

  1. The local ACLU affiliate likely has a media contact on their website. You can reach out to them, as they are most likely to know of any litigation involving a protest or march.
  2. An investigative journalist you know and trust. If you don’t know anyone personally, consider reporters who work with organizations like ProPublica, known for a high level of professionalism and integrity. Most investigative journalists and outlets have secure upload protocols or at least a secure email or phone number in a twitter bio. The Texas Observer, a great outlet to contact if you are in Texas, gives very detailed information on ways to contact them and transfer data in a secure and encrypted fashion.
  3. A private attorney, either your own or one representing people harmed in a protest.

Other reasons to let someone else be the person who releases your video include your credibility and personal safety. A video promoted by a recognized news outlet will be much harder to deflect, minimize, or discredit than one tweeted by you when your Twitter handle is @Poodle_Lover_18 and your Twitter stream is largely poodle memes. And you may be 100% in the right and operating in a completely legal fashion, but do you want a rogue police officer to decide to harass you? Or to incur the wrath of Twitter trolls who will dox you?

If you *do* upload to social media, make a copy of the file to preserve the integrity of the original and only post the copy. And strongly consider using one of the face-blurring/meta-data-stripping apps to protect the identities of those filmed.

All the usual rules apply. Be hydrated. Carry snacks so you don’t bonk. Have critical information written in indelible ink on your arm, like your lawyer’s number. Wear sunscreen. Plan a safe escape route. Again, it can be extremely helpful to look into nonviolent demonstration training before you go out to film a march, rally, or protest. Your goal is to help, so make sure you don’t unintentionally undermine the cause you mean to support.

Posted in advice you didn't ask for, politics, pro-choice activism | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is Stupid and Anti-American

Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick stunned the nation when, on Tucker Carlson’s news broadcast, he suggested that grandparents are willing to sacrifice their lives so that the rest of the country can get back to work. He seems to suggest that by letting the elderly die off, somehow the rest of us will be protected and able to go about business as usual.

First, let’s address the stupid part.

Dan Patrick is dumber than a box of hair.

Viruses aren’t good ol’ boys swaddled in camo with Yeti coffee mugs and Ducks Unlimited decals on their rear windows, out to bag the daily limit.

Viruses are motherfucking spree killers pumped up on angel dust and Four Loko.

We can’t ask TxDOT to use those nifty signs to direct viruses which exit to take and which parking lot to use to go get the olds.

The more people exposed, the more who fall ill. That’s it. That’s the way this works. There’s no vaccine, and the treatment doesn’t always work even if you can access it. The outbreak will only run its course if we limit the number of people the virus can reach, which we can do by staying at home and avoiding other people who might be infected.

Now, let’s look at the second issue, Dan Patrick’s stunning lack of confidence in each and every one of us in this country, which is what leads me to say that

Dan Patrick is anti-American.

Dan Patrick and Donald Trump are making the same argument—equally ineloquently—letting the economy tank is worse than letting the virus kill a bunch of people, so we should go back to work and pretend it’s all good.

Why does Dan Patrick think a month or two of large numbers of people working from home and some people needing increased government assistance over the short-term will completely and totally wreck us?

Does he not believe in American ingenuity? In bootstraps? In our cultural obsession with reinvention? Doesn’t he know we’re the Timex Nation?

There are only two options here, and honestly, hard to say which paints Danny boy in the worse light.

Either he thinks Americans have become so worthless and weak that we can’t dig ourselves out of a hole, or he knows the game is rigged.

Can’t we dig ourselves out of a hole? Isn’t that who we are as a people? And I don’t say that in a jocular and jingoistic way, but in a very sincere and human way. Despite much evidence to the contrary, humans are remarkably resilient. It might really, really get bleak, but we will push through. As noted scientist Dr. Ian Malcolm said, “life, uh, finds a way.”

Or does Dan think we can’t dig ourselves out of a hole because he knows he and the other kleptocrats are ringing the edges, filling it up with quick-setting concrete faster than we can pull ourselves out?

America, don’t listen to Dan Patrick, who is truly just another bombastic two-bit Texas dimwit. Tell MawMaw and PeePaw it’s safe to come out onto the porch as long as they stay six feet away from everyone else for the next couple of months and keep washing their hands. They don’t have to sacrifice themselves for our mutual funds. We’ll all get through this together.

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