Saturday, January 28, 2017

My Identity and Trump

Some say that, as a Republican, it is my special responsibility to stand up to what President Trump is doing (in this case, banning people from certain Muslim countries from the United States and putting a tariff on Mexico). I don't agree with that because I am a lot more than a Republican. I am a libertarian for one, who believes individual liberty should be prioritized. I am a history teacher who sees a less-qualified repeat of the Jackson presidency. I am a Christian who believes we should treat our neighbor as ourselves. And I am an American who believes that what President Trump is doing runs contrary to our nation's principles.

What President Trump has proposed will have tremendous economic costs. It has been implemented in an absurdly chaotic fashion that is locking out longtime residents nobody fears with no warning. His proposal takes the real problem of terrorism and transforms it into a bogeyman (chances of being murdered by a refugee in a terrorist attack are 1 in 3.64 billion). It slams the door to people who need our help or lived here for years when we are a nation of immigrants. It shreds checks and balances by letting a president set immigration policy when it should be the job of Congress to write laws.

Similarly, basic economics dictates the cluelessness of Trump's idea to put a tariff on Mexico. We already saw counterproductive tariffs attempted during the Bush and Obama administrations. This time, we'd see a blanket ban on all goods from an entire country instead of a specific good from a specific country. Prices will go up, jobs will go down, and we will feel these effects worst in a border state like Texas.

I engage in politics because I want the government to stay out of our business, whether it's our wallets, our bedrooms, or our way of life. My beliefs and identities don't change because a president from my political party doesn't understand the role of his office or government in general. A president should never have this much power, whether his last name was Bush, Obama, or Trump. And my beliefs are why I'll fight abuses of power like this with whatever president comes next. 

EDIT: For those who think Republicans willing to stand up to Trump is the key to preventing bad policy, let's put our money where our mouth is. Last night Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) announced his opposition to the Trump administration ban on immigration from Muslim countries, and he previously voiced his concerns on the tariff. 

Flake will probably face a primary and general election challenge. I donated last night.

You should too.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Why HERO went down

Considering the public polling, it came as a shock. Last night, Houston voters resoundingly defeated the anti-discrimination ordinance called HERO, 39%-61%. The massive margin, coupled with the simultaneous victory of a progressive Democrat for mayor, illustrate something deeper going on than strong off-year turnout from white conservatives. Those who supported HERO need to learn a few lessons.

1) Social conservatives did not deliver the votes. While evangelical-oriented politicians and operatives ran the opposition Campaign for Houston, many of the votes came from demographics we tend to see as socially liberal. Consider this map from the Houston Chronicle's Mike Morris:

Google Fusion table from Mike Morris illustrating HERO vote by precinct.
HERO only won in the blue (50%-60%), purple (60%-75%), and magenta (75%+) areas. Now compare this to the mayoral outcome by precinct.

In contrast, much of the map is dominated by yellow, where HERO took 25% - 40% of the vote.

Google Fusion table from Mike Morris illustrating mayoral vote by precinct.
In the second map, the yellow represents runner-up Bill King (R). Yes, he won in places HERO went down, where suburban Republicans live in Clear Lake and Kingwood.

But obviously the anti-HERO forces, calling themselves the Campaign for Houston, won a much bigger victory than King's 24% (or 33% combined among anti-HERO candidates if you include Ben Hall's vote). HERO was also defeated in many black precincts dominated by Turner (orange in the second map) and Hispanic ones won by Garcia (teal in the second map).

This is a city that voted for a lesbian mayor in 2009. A city that twice delivered over 60% for President Obama. And yet, this is a city that voted against HERO.

Social conservatives have a path to victory bigger than their own base, which means that...

2) Social conservatives have a new playbook.

The Campaign for Houston could have messaged differently. It could have been all about religious liberty, for example, or wording issues with the ordinance (which did play some role in the debate).They could have talked about the large fines businesses could face for violating the ordinance. Instead, opponents single-mindedly focused on HERO's rules against businesses discriminating based on gender identity, charging the ordinance allowed predators to pretend to be transgender and really attack women in their restrooms. Even worse, the predators could target little girls, like in this ad.

The black and white ad creates a sombre mood, with a rough-looking and flannel-clad man entering a women's restroom. He hides in a stall as a cute little schoolgirl walks in. As she enters a stall, he follows her. Her eyes go wide as the ad ends, with seconds of silence to make the viewer think about the scary thing they just saw.

It was a winning (if cromulent) issue for them. Now that Obergefell has made gay marriage the law of the land, expect social conservatives to push the fight anti-discrimination ordinances as the next battle of the culture wars. This issue will be the tip of their spear.

3) Which isn't very different from their old playbook.

In 2008, social conservatives and religious organizations pushed for California's Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in that state's constitution. They ran incredibly effective ads, like this one.

A cute little girl is asking her two dads about babies. When her dad tells her you don't have to be married to have babies, she looks down at the floor, crushed. "Then...what's marriage for?" The narrator then intones to the audience, "Let's not confuse our kids."

Another prominent ad pushed the vicitmization of children angle seen in the HERO campaign. Again, a little girl is the star, as she tells her mom about what she learned at school.

"I learned how a prince married a prince, and I can marry a princess!" she says with a huge smile. Her mother simply has a confused look, unsure how to respond, as a narrator takes over again. "Teaching children about gay marriage WILL happen here unless we pass Proposition Eight."

The ads won awards for their effectiveness, with their relentless and single-minded messaging: think of the children.

3) LGBT activists defeated themselves in 2008. 

In their fight against Prop 8, LGBT activists ran ads like this against the measure:

The ad calls Prop 8 "a drastic step to strip people of rights" and "a major threat to our basic constitutional rights." Further, the narrator lectures that "regardless of how you feel about marriage, it's wrong to treat people differently under the law."

The fact that the narrator lectures voters is the problem. Many voters then felt a reflexive discomfort with gay marriage, especially being taught to their voters. Accusing these voters of discrimination only rationalized their opposition rather than shaming them into voting no. 

Still, the argument may not have proven fatal except for one public official's off-message stunts. Then San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom chose his career over defeating the proposition.
A few weeks before the election, with opponents of Prop 8 fighting back against distracting assertions that the right to same-sex marriage meant that "homosexuality" will be promoted in the public schools, Newsom presided over the same-sex wedding of a first grade teacher at San Francisco City Hall. Eighteen of her students were on hand to toss rose petals and blow bubbles on their just married teacher and her new wife.
Suddenly, the single-minded message of the Prop 8 supporters seemed prescient. Any shame voters may have felt from the vote no side fell apart, justified by Newsom's stunts.

4) And now LGBT activists are doing it again.

Instead of Gavin Newsom, Annise Parker took the role of the public official gone rogue. At the height of the campaign, when Houston Astros star Lance Berkman starred in an ad for the Campaign for Houston, Parker went on the attack.

Suddenly, the media was talking about the battle between the mayor and the Houston Astros star. Who do you think was going to win that?

More importantly, the media spoke about that fight more than any independent messaging from Houston Unites.

Not that Houston Unites' strategy (rather than message) proved very compelling either. They actually had some decent ads, like this one discussing discrimination against veterans.

But in a huge city like Houston, television ads with limited budgets can only go so far. The Campaign for Houston focused on cheaper radio ads (and not just on the usual talk radio and country stations either), and they got them on the air early. Houston Unites focused on TV, where their message ironically had less reach. Besides, by the time Houston Unites got on the air, mayoral campaigns were up too, drowning out the message further. In effect, Houston Unites never got to push out its own message.

It didn't help that the campaign began this summer after the Texas Supreme Court forced the ordinance onto the ballot. Unexpectedly, supporters had to cobble together a unified effort and try to raise the millions of dollars to mount an effective advertising campaign. They only partially succeeded.

Without strong independent messaging from Houston Unites, the narrative in the media centered on the bathroom issue, whether it was the Houston Chronicle, ABC 13, the Texas Tribune, even the New York Times. They talked about the Texans owner, Bob Mcnair, and his opposition to HERO. They talked about Parker's brawl with Berkman.

There wasn't much talk about veterans, or the elderly, or African Americans, or other groups also covered by the ordinance. Rather than pushing their own message, HERO supporters responded weakly to their opponents.

In debate terms, Houston Unites dropped the argument. They never really addressed the bathroom issue beyond calling the claims false and  their opponents supporters of discrimination. Their arguments made supporters seem like they did not take voter concerns seriously, or worse seem condescending towards those fears.

In so doing, Houston Unites let voters' fears linger. Yesterday, those fears erupted into a crushing defeat for HERO.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

How Osama bin Laden (kind of) transformed my hometown

It would be easier to blame Osama bin Laden.

The Houston Gulf Airport opened in League City in 1967. Ten years later, a new buyer emerged named Salem bin Laden. Salem bin Laden was the half-brother of Osama bin Laden. Salem died in 1988, and the airport lingered on the market in limbo for a decade and a half thereafter. But after 15 years, the property was suddenly scooped up by a housing developer within months of 9/11.

It's not hard to put the pieces together. The bin Laden family divested its American holdings after 9/11, facing a PR nightmare caused by their estranged relative. Houston Gulf Airport was a tiny and inconsequential piece of those holdings, but one that impacted my life at the time.

I grew up caring for horses on a pasture next door to the airfield. By the time I frequented the area, Houston Gulf Airport was overgrown. The nearby fields looked a vast expanse to me, although now I recognize it was a mowed-over field grown wild. But still, those were my fields. I rode horses in them, drove four-wheelers on them, and spent years exploring them. And after 9/11, they were taken away from me.

Today, I live on that same pasture. Now I have to look out from my front porch and stare at row after row of cookie-cutter luxury apartments instead of open fields.

Thanks Osama.

I know it isn't really Osama bin Laden's fault. Developers are champing at the bit to build developments with corny names like Marbella, Whispering Lakes Ranch, and Brittany Bay in League City. 9/11 only accelerated that process by opening up that particular airfield to new construction. But still, I remain interested in why exactly that process is happening; why are towns like League City growing so rapidly?

League City? Who cares?

Despite my nostalgia for the once small town, League City only became important fairly recently. The story is told through the US Census, which illustrates the city's explosive growth. In 1950, the census recorded barely 1,300 residents. However, the population rapidly spiked, doubling to over 2,600 in 1960, then rising to over 10,000 in 1970, and finally reaching over 30,000 by 1990.

The town's growth only accelerated in recent years. Between 2000 and 2010, the city grew by almost 40,000 people to 83,460 residents. Over 10,000 newcomers have moved to League City since the 2010 census, and the population is expected to top 100,000 by 2017. Rather than a small town, League City now lives up to its name.

Galveston's Fall

In contrast, county seat Galveston has faced a long stagnation and decline. The once bustling port never fully recovered from the infamous Great Storm of 1900, and years of domination by local organized crime elements through the 1950s did not help build sustainable industries. Instead, the city largely serves as the home of UTMB and a local tourist attraction.

As League City's population booms, Galveston slowly declines. Chart created by Danny Surman.
The city peaked in population in 1960, weighing in at just over 67,000 residents, and has slowly lost population since that time.

The precipitous drop between 2000 and 2008 came from a perennial problem: hurricanes. In 2001, Tropical Storm Allison barraged the local coastline for two weeks. In 2005, Hurricane Rita flushed hundreds of thousands from their homes, leaving residents stranded on I-45 and I-10 (my family among them). And in 2008, the deepest blow of all struck the area, with Hurricane Ike leveling communities and causing widespread damage on Galveston Island.

The last hurricane accelerated migration patterns in the area. Galveston's population had already been declining for years, due in part to rising housing costs. Ike only gave residents, now facing dramatic repair costs and litigious processes to access the money from insurance companies, more reason to move to other cities on the mainland. Today, the city is only the third most populous community in its namesake county. The top of the list? League City, located at the northernmost tip of Galveston County and one of the recipients of Galveston's expatriates.

Sprawling Suburbs

Meanwhile, the ongoing explosive growth of Houston (soon to surpass even Chicago in population) created a growing housing demand in the sprawling metropolis' suburbs. Communities like Clear Lake ran out out of housing or priced out prospective home buyers, families and young professionals moving to work in Houston. These commuters began looking to communities that were previously seen as too distant, places like Pearland and League City.

The growth patterns of League City and Pearland seem unusually similar. Chart created by Danny Surman.
The similarities between Pearland and League City's growth are remarkable. Both pursued aggressive annexations of other local communities, flexing their muscle in all directions. Each city adopted a council-manager form of government (which, ironically, began in Galveston) and adopted zoning ordinances as their cities grew in size. Finally, both municipalities face spiking housing prices as their populations skyrocket and developments increase in quality.

Pearland: Beds and Businesses

But there are differences. Pearland has more room to expand, ultimately less hemmed in by the Gulf Coast and other incorporated communities than League City. Pearland also boasts the corporate headquarters of health care provider Kelsey Seybold, with Texas commuter gas station giant Buc-ees on the way.

A screenshot from Google Maps that includes Pearland, League City, and Galveston.
It's that last fact which preoccupies city planners in League City. In some ways, Pearland is years ahead of League City in development. Where League City struggles to attract major retail and corporate development, Pearland is scouting new businesses to relocate to the area.

When League City's City Council voted in January on its priorities, the body unanimously supported the goal of attracting a corporate headquarters to the city within three years.

Sales Tax War

Also unlike League City, Pearland took advantage of a Texas statute that allows municipalities to enact a 1/4 of $.01 sales tax to create a "municipal development district," a broad quasi-governmental entity that is generally supposed to provide economic development for local communities.

That's a lot of jargon to break down. Say you go to Starbucks and buy yourself a hot Venti Mocha (and that you are not wise enough to buy cheaper coffee elsewhere). In League City, that costs $5.02. In Pearland, it costs $5.03.

I will not go much deeper into that sales tax issue, but the League City City Council did vote to put that issue before voters in November. The fact that they voted to put such a measure on the ballot, while seeking out a new corporate headquarters to relocate to League City, illustrates the priorities of City Council in the once small town.

A comprehensive plan from 2011 illuminates their thinking. It identifies several "community characteristics" a town can have, detailed here.

Right now, with the population pressure from Houston in the north and Galveston in the south, League City has transitioned from a natural (undeveloped) and rural/estate (agricultural and scattered residential) character to a suburban and auto-dominant (mixed subdivisions and strip mall developments) one. That process happened gradually and largely independent of anything League City's government did (although zoning regulations probably facilitated some developments and inhibited others). Cities adopt zoning ordinances and city management systems to at least (try to) manage this growth, hoping to guide future development. It's not clear to me that such management works, but the goal is there.

Homes but no businesses?

One other term that recently entered the council debate: bedroom community. The council senses that League City is a community with lots of homeowners but few businesses. Pearland no longer fits that bill, and neither do some other comparable communities like Webster.

City Council wants to change that. They are looking at future revenue and growth, seeking bigger businesses to ensure League City's tax base is large enough to provide the services of a city its size. Otherwise, they say, the city will lose revenue to the likes of Webster and Pearland, menaces in their mind that threaten to stymie League City's potential.

People come to League City because it has good schools and affordable housing prices. But those housing prices are spiking now that people are flooding the area. What will happen when the market inevitably shifts, and residents are priced out of our community? They will leave, just like they left Galveston. If League City remains a place where people mostly live (rather than spend money), then the city could be left in a dire position when people start leaving.

The impending revenue crunch explains why City Council desperately desires the new sales tax. They are not sure what they plan to do with the money, but the city remains in debt with a tax base reliant on property taxes. Meanwhile, residents continue to pour into League City, driving housing prices unsustainably higher.

Either way, the open fields of my youth are gone. Now I wonder what will take their place.

Thanks Osama.

Monday, October 12, 2015

A boring race might be interesting- if the polls are right

Until recently, the Houston mayoral race looked like a boring race not worth caring about. After all, the first poll of the race, back in June, showed two clear frontrunners: State Rep. Sylvester Turner (D) and former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia (D). Months and literally dozens of forums later, a new poll one week ago showed the outcome basically unchanged; Turner and Garcia were headed for a December runoff.

But two new polls have been released since then. The first, from TargetPoint Consulting, showed Bill King (I) surging into second place over Garcia with 18% of the vote. However, the poll was commissioned by a group that endorsed King, making it appear like an unreliable internal poll. However, a few days ago another poll came out showing King tied for second place.

What's more, that poll confirmed the dynamic at play: Garcia is rapidly falling in the polls while King consolidates Republican voters. Finally, we have movement in the polls.

Polling Challenges

Perhaps the race has naturally tightened as actual voting draws near. Candidates are now spending money on advertising, more yard signs (bless their heart) are going up, and local media are throwing increasing coverage towards the race itself. Voters may simply care more as election day draws near. However, polling methodologies may also obfuscate the state of the race.

Turner %
Garcia %
King %
Bell %
Costello %
Hall %
Undecided %
10/5 – 10/6
9/25 – 10/6
9/21 – 9/24
5/20 – 6/21

Only four polls have been released in the mayoral race so far. Two of them are from the same pollster, a collaboration between centers at the University of Houston and Rice University. Their results are conspicuous  for two reasons. First, the number of undecideds in those two polls dwarf the other two, which were conducted by traditional consulting firms. Second, they were each conducted over a month's time.

Time in the field

A month long survey like this can be useful. The writeup of the poll for KHOU notes that Garcia's numbers plummeted over the month after a barrage of negative stories about his tenure as Harris County Sheriff, something that may not have been picked up in a more typical survey length of two days to a week.

However, such a long survey can also mask what's happening day to day in a race. The sample size may be 567 for the total poll, but breaking that up week by week yields much smaller groups. Now break each weekly group into six major candidates plus undecideds, and you have a lot less confidence in the results. In contrast, a more typical poll conducted over a shorter period would have a stronger snapshot of a race, even if it couldn't pick up change over time as well. Both bring something to the table, and unfortunately there probably isn't enough money floating around for a real tracking poll to better measure change in candidate support.

How many undecided voters?

But the bigger looming issue is the large number of undecided voters in the UH/Rice polls. American Strategies pushed undecided voters on which candidate they were leaning toward. While this pushing only added 1-3% to each candidate, it seems to have brought down the number of undecided voters compared to the university polls (23% versus 53% and 42%). Apparently, that 1-3% per candidate adds up.

This Houston pollster is not the only one facing these methodological issues. One of the better-known cases is the UNH Survey Center, which surveys major races in New Hampshire, one of the most polled states in the nation. Its surveys consistently generate higher than usual undecided voters, a phenomenon that makes elections seem more volatile and candidates seem to have less support than they actually have. Even further, their polls are often out in the field longer than typical, sometimes longer than a week. These issues have real consequences.

Almost half of all voters are probably not still undecided a month before election day. With such small differences in vote share for second place, the UH/Rice poll could miss the actual result, which is kind of the point of asking about elections (elections are one of the few opportunities to test pollster accuracy). The UH/Rice polls have some really interesting questions that make them useful, particularly regarding issues important to Houston voters. But on the horserace, the American Strategies poll appears the most reliable.

Of course, the leading / best funded campaigns have internal poll numbers, the results of which most of us will never see, that could help verify this speculation. My guess is UH/Rice will release one more poll shortly before election day, and hopefully one or two more pollsters drop their own results as well in the next month. With more data, we will be able to make a more educated decision: Is this race really a snoozefest or something worth watching?

For more on this year's Houston mayoral election, see this preview of the race from February.