It comes down to 125 voters.
Harris County, with a population of over 4 million people, lost its only Democratic county commissioner when long-serving El Franco Lee died unexpectedly in January. The campaign laws meant that it was too late to put a replacement name on the ballot. Instead,
The task of picking a commissioner who will represent 1.2 million people – more than the populations of nine states – and control a $200 million budget falls to a group of 125 Democratic precinct chairs.
County Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican, announced he would appoint someone to serve strictly a place-holder until an election could be held, and named Houston City Attorney Gene Locke. Emmett, recognizing Precinct 1’s history of being represented by a Democrat, said it would not be fair to subvert the will of the voters by appointing someone he, the GOP judge, would prefer.
Locke assured people he was not a candidate for the position:
“My intention is to go back to the practice of law and enjoy my family.”
Locke quickly went back on his word, however, and has been campaigning for the position almost since he came on board.
Senator Rodney Ellis announced his candidacy early, and with Locke, is considered a front-runner.
Three other candidates are campaigning, one of whom, Dwight Boykins, is a sitting Houston City Council member, an office which requires him to resign should he officially declare his candidacy for another position. So he’s running unofficially, wink wink, which is the kind of move you might expect from a paragon of ethics like Ken Paxton.
Republicans on Commissioners Court do not want to have Senator Ellis as a colleague, which could just be the best argument for electing him (if there weren’t so many other positive reasons to do so).
They’d much prefer a go-along, get-along commissioner, Gene Locke. They’re going out of their way to raise his visibility. During the Tax Day floods, for example, when the county judge and Houston mayor fielded questions from the media, the place-holder commissioner was on stage as well. He’s been on the dais and in the news as often as possible at other community events.
Why don’t the Republicans want Senator Ellis, preferring Go-Along, Get-Along Gene?
For one, Senator Ellis will bring his focus on criminal justice reform with him to the court.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack in particular wants none of that, and blurted out with Boss Hogg bluster that Senator Ellis ought to shut up. During the May 24th meeting, Radack read aloud from an article written about Ellis’s critique of the county’s record:
Radack: “Senator Ellis recently said that Harris County’s over-reliance on the ineffective and inefficient use of mass incarceration as a means of dealing with low-level and non-violent offenses continues to result in some of the highest jailing and incarceration rates in the US and the world.”
Ellis said this in a statement issued in a response to the lawsuit. ‘It’s an approach that wastes countless taxpayer dollars, has been ineffective at making our community safer, and has a particularly devastating effect on communities of color and the poor.’”
Radack continued with his own commentary, waving a paper in the air:
Radack: And I submit to you … here’s a breakdown of the counties just in Texas, and we don’t even lead, come close to leading Texas in our incarceration rates. Do you agree with that?
Response from someone offscreen: I would not know, uh, the right …
Radack: I … but anyway, I think it’s time that Mr. Ellis either shut up or state the right facts.
That’s my personal opinion.
Which I’m entitled to. To my knowledge.[laughter]
Just like I’m entitled to go into a men’s restroom.
Well, Radack could not have picked a better adjective for himself than entitled.
Did anyone on the court speak up to point out that while Radack might be looking at other Texas counties, Ellis was comparing Harris County rates to rates around the country and the U.S., and did not claim they were the highest, but only among the highest?
Did anyone on the court speak up as an advocate for the minority and low-income populations that are disproportionally affected by mass incarceration?
And by anyone, I mean the precinct one placeholder?
Nope. Go-Along Gene just sat there, maybe even joining in the laughter at Radack’s casual transphobic jab about bathrooms and entitlement.
Consider other county offices that are ineffective and inefficient, and whose ineffectiveness and inefficiencies disadvantage minority and low-income communities. The Harris County Clerk’s office, which runs elections, held by the colossally inept Stan Stanart?
Senator Ellis has a strong record of fighting to protect voting rights. Imagine bringing his oversight to bear on Stanart’s clown show of a department.
Precinct 1 needs a champion, not a chump. Let’s hope at least 63 precinct chairs feel the same.
Photo by Ed Schipul used and edited under Creative Commons license.