December 30, 2005
Filing news: Stuff I forgot the first time

The problem with doing these big accumulation posts is that it's easy to forget some stuff. Fortunately, blog software makes publishing easy...

Rumors are flying around the campaign of Carole Keeton "One Discombobulated Grandma" Strayhorn. Will she run as an independent? Will she cross us all up and run for Lite Guv (I got the same email Bluebonnet did)? Will she shave her heard and move to Botswana? Hey, I figure I'd better get in the rumormongering business while it's still brisk. If you hear that one anywhere else, you'll know where you heard it first.

Matt reports a rumor that there could be a second Democratic contender for HD122: former Bexar County Democratic Party Chair Rudy Casias. The Jeffersonian is unimpressed.

Things are still screwed up in the aforementioned Bexar County Democratic Party. Film at eleven.

Filing news: Friday frenzy

Lots of filing news to report as we approach the January 2 deadline. Let's get started...

Celebrity has its privilege, as radio personality Dan Patrick's filing for SD07 rates a fairly sizable Chron story. He's off the air until he loses or finishes serving however many terms he wins, but he's still there in spirit, as he's being replaced by his son.

Recent polls have shown Patrick with a commanding lead in the four-way race for the GOP nomination. Jim McGrath tries to make lemonade from that:

Patrick recently released a poll of likely Republican primary voters that shows him earning 54 percent of the vote if the election were held today. Nixon had 10 percent, Hamric had 9 percent and Ellis garnered 7 percent among those polled.

The poll, commissioned by Patrick and conducted by the Colorado-based polling firm Vitale & Associates, was taken in early December.

Nixon spokesman Jim McGrath questions the results.

"He's been on the air in the Houston market for years. Naturally he has a name ID advantage. We dispute that he has that level of support," McGrath said. "Name ID is one thing, support is another."

I suppose that's true, and perhaps for a primary election where most of the voters are more committed to the process than average, you're less likely to get someone to push the button for the only name they recognize than you might get in a general. That's still a lot of ground to make up, and whoever does make the hoped-for runoff with Patrick had better also hope that the two losers aren't too disgruntled to give an endorsement. Otherwise, expect Danno to be off the air for a long time.

Staying with the State Senate, we now have a second Democratic challenge to a GOP-held seat. Eye on Williamson introduces us to Stephen Wyman, who is running against Sen. Steve Ogden in CD05, which covers Brazos, Burleson, Freestone, Grimes, Houston, Lee, Leon, Limestone, Madison, Milam, Robertson, Trinity, Walker and Williamson Counties (see PDF map). If a Democrat steps up in Ken Armbrister's SD18, we'll have a challenge to an incumbent (Ogden in SD05 and Frank Madla in SD19, assuming he wins his primary) and a race for an open seat on each side. Elam has some news about SD18, where Glenn Hegar appears to be consolidating support - I've also got a CapInside piece that says he's got State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham in his corner. It's the hair, people. Hegar could swap grooming tips with Rick Perry. Never underestimate a good head of hair.

Moving to Congress, most of the remaining names on the Democratic side have been filled in, as several incumbents plus Robert Ricketts (CD19), John Courage (CD21), and Rick Bolanos (CD23) submitted their paperwork in the last day or two. Here's a few words on Bolanos:

Swinging through San Antonio on Wednesday, El Pasoan Rick Bolaños kicked off his bid to unseat District 23 U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla with a fiery speech that took on the Bush administration more than his would-be Republican opponent.

Bolaños so far is the lone Democrat to announce for the March 7 primary.

Known as "the Band of Brothers," Bolaños and his three brothers, all of whom served in Vietnam, stumped nationwide for John Kerry in 2004, aiming to counteract attacks on the Democratic presidential candidate's military record.

Speaking to supporters in an Omni Hotel meeting room, Bolaños recalled his father's fervent patriotism and his own experiences in Vietnam, including tending to a gravely wounded friend during the Tet offensive.

"If he had lived, what would this administration have said about him if he ran for president?" Bolaños said, his voice wavering.

He went on to attack President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, the administration's handling of health insurance for children and the outsourcing of jobs.

At the same time, Bolaños said he wants to see an end to rigid partisanship in Congress. "We have to be more passionate about America," he said, "and less passionate about parties."

District 23 reaches from San Antonio to El Paso, and Bonilla — who so far has not drawn a primary opponent — has held the seat since 1992.

Here's an older story that mentions Ricketts' candidacy:

On [December 8] Randy Neugebauer announced that he will seek another term as congressman for District 19. The Lubbock Congressman wasn't the only one to make that announcement.

At Texas Tech, Robert Ricketts announced his candidacy for the congressional seat. Ricketts is the Director of Accounting Programs for Tech and will run as a Democrat. He hopes to use his more than 20-years of tax policy practice to help solve the nation's budget problems.

On [December 9] Fred Jones intends to announce his candidacy for District 19 on the Libertarian ticket.

By the time you read this, David Harris will have paid his fee in Austin to file for CD06. Here's his statement:

On Friday afternoon, I will deliver my filing to run as the Democratic Candidate in TX-06 to the state headquarters in Austin. It is an awesome responsibility that lies ahead and my family and I appreciate the encouragement and support we have received over the past few months.

Recently, according to the New York Times, “Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.), an architect of the Medicaid proposals, said the higher co-payments were needed to `encourage personal responsibility' among low-income people.”

While Barton believes those less fortunate need to learn to exercise more “personal responsibility”, I believe the elected official for TX-06 should take more “personal responsibility” for what that job should be…an instrument to serve the constituents of the district from which you are elected, not a position of power to line your pockets. Now that TX-06 has dirtier air, rapidly shrinking salaries in Tarrant and Ellis counties and children dropping off Medicaid rolls at alarming rates its time to enforce our own term limits…its time for Joe to go.

I hope each of you will Follow Me to DC…it is truly the most important work we will ever do.

Moving to the State House, I did a little counting on the Dem filings and GOP filings pages. By my count, 80 seats so far have Democratic candidates filed for them, while 78 have Republicans. Three of those 80 Dems are not yet listed on the page but will have filed by the end of the day today (HD50 - Mark Strama, about whom more in a jif, HD122 - Larry Stallings, and HD125 - Joaquin Castro - scroll down on the page). The districts which do not yet have anyone filed for them:

HD24 - Larry Taylor (R)
HD33 - Vilma Luna (D)
HD34 - Abel Herrero (D)
HD37 - Rene Oliveira (D)
HD38 - Open (D)
HD42 - Richard Raymond (D)
HD65 - Burt Solomons (R)
HD74 - Pete Gallego (D)
HD90 - Lon Burnam (D)
HD95 - Marc Veasey (D)
HD100 - Terri Hodge (D)
HD104 - Roberto Alonzo (D)
HD123 - Mike Villareal (D)
HD128 - Wayne Smith (R)
HD130 - Corbin Van Arsdale (R)
HD132 - Bill Callegari (R)
HD135 - Gary Elkins (R)
HD138 - Dwayne Bohac (R)

Interestingly, none of the Harris County GOP contingent is listed as having filed yet; in contrast, all of the Dems have done so. Either the state party's page is out of date, or they're being especially laggard about it. Other than the open seat in HD38, I've not heard anything about retirements in any of these, so I presume it's all just procrastination. We'll have a much clearer picture soon.

Speaking of Mark Strama, his statement upon filing today is beneath the fold. Greg has a twofer on the contested primary in HD146, and news about filings for Harris County offices. I just want to say that J. Goodwille Pierre, candidate for Harris County Clerk, has an awesome name.

Finally, a piece of unexpected news at the statewide level: The Dems have a candidate for Lieutenant Governor.

Marshall resident and attorney Ben Z. Grant on Thursday announced he will be a candidate for Texas Lieutenant Governor in the March Democratic primary.

Grant, 65, a former state representative who also served 17 years as justice of the Sixth Court of Appeals in Texarkana, said he is looking forward to the statewide race.

He shipped his filing papers Thursday to Texas Democratic Party headquarters in Austin. As of Thursday afternoon no other candidates had filed.

Incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst filed on Dec. 15 as a Republican seeking re-election. Grant said, assuming he wins the Democratic Party primary, he is looking forward to likely taking on Dewhurst next November.

"I realize it will be an uphill battle," Grant said, "but I want to give the people a choice."

Grant said voters across the state are unhappy with the lack of progress by the Texas Legislature on solving the state's school finance challenges.

"There has been a lot of disenfranchisement from both parties because the legislature has been unable to get together on school finance," he said. "It's not an easy task, but I feel I can work with people of both parties."

Grant retired from the Sixth Court of Criminal Appeals when his term ended in 2002. He served as a state representative from 1971 until 1981.

Grant was also a district judge for the 71st Judicial District Court in Harrison County and was appointed to the court of appeals in 1985 by then-Gov. Mark White. He said he spent 37 years in government, starting his career as a school teacher.

Grant has also been a weekly Sunday columnist for the Marshall News Messenger the past eight years. Those columns will cease as of this week, newspaper officials said.

Is this state big enough for two former media personalities running for office in 2006?

If you want proof that what Grant says about working with people of both parties is more than mere rhetoric, consider this:

County Republican Chairman Sam Moseley said, while he wishes Grant well, he anticipates Dewhurst will continue serving as Texas Lieutenant Governor after the November election.

"Ben Grant is a good personal friend whom I admire in many ways," Moseley said Thursday afternoon. "I know this statewide campaign will be a valuable experience for him."

Moseley and Grant ran against each other in 1970 for state representative with Grant winning that race.

"Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is also a friend, and a person of great personal skill and integrity," Moseley said. "Legislators from both parties say he serves very effectively as our state's lieutenant governor.

"I have confidence in Gov. Dewhurst, and expect him to continue serve our state honorably and well."

That's about as nice a quote as you could expect from a county chair for the opposing party, especially someone you once beat in an election. I look forward to learning more about Ben Grant.

Click the More link for Mark Strama's statement.

Juror pay raise

Starting next week, you're going to need a reason other than crappy pay to weasel out of jury duty.

Texas will no longer be among the stingiest states when it comes to pay for jury duty, raising the $6-a-day rate to $40 a day in the first increase in more than 50 years.

The increase is effective Jan. 1 under a new law designed to improve the state's low level of juror participation. They'll still get the $6 rate on the first day of jury service.

"Texas has lagged behind in fair jury fees for a long, long time," said Supreme Court Judge Nathan Hecht. "It's disingenuous to look over to them and say, 'We couldn't do this without you,' then hand them $6. At times that won't pay for parking and it certainly won't pay for lunch."

Juror pay varies greatly from state to state, with Texas near the bottom before the increase, according to the National Center for State Courts. Massachusetts and Colorado pay nothing up to the first three days, but increase that to $50 a day on the fourth day. Other states such as Iowa, Kansas and Maine pay a flat rate of $10 per day. Federal courts pay $40 per day.

Lawmakers, lawyers and judges hope the change in Texas will increase jury participation and bring more minority representation to juries. One expert said the increase should help.

"If you don't pay a decent fee for the jurors' service, you are excluding those people who can't afford to spend a day in court on $6 a day," said Phoenix attorney Patricia Refo, who oversaw an American Bar Association project on public participation in the courts. "Hopefully, this will encourage people to do their civic duty."

You can thank the firm of Vinson & Elkins, plus former Dallas Mayor and Senate candidate Ron Kirk for the assist on this one. Forty bucks a day still isn't a king's ransom, but most people could get by on it for a week if they had to, and it will more than cover costs for those of us who still get our salary while doing our aformentioned civic duty. I've said before that I have little patience for people who whine about the inconvenience of serving on a jury. I have even less patience for them now.

Clinic expansion in South Texas

You may recall the 250-mile march that State Rep. Aaron Pena and a bunch of veterans from the Rio Grande Valley took in November to highlight the need for a real VA hospital in South Texas. It's not quite what they asked for, but they did get something for their efforts.

A new, larger outpatient clinic for veterans, to replace a smaller clinic built in 2004, is planned for land near the Regional Academic Health Center.

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s office announced the plan Wednesday.

A statement from Hutchison’s office said that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will lease the clinic from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio for at least 15 years. The facility will be built on land owned by UT Health Science Center and adjacent to the RAHC.


Richard Garcia, assistant vice president for South Texas programs at UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, said the center had been planning this new clinic “for a while,” but didn’t have official word that the Department of Veterans Affairs would lease the space.

Garcia said design plans for the clinic already are 95 percent completed.

The new facility would be 30,000 square feet, compared to the current clinic’s 10,000 square feet, and would offer more services, officials said. Some of those services would include mental-health care, a laboratory, a pharmacy, dental care and physical therapy.

Some local veterans questioned whether the new facility would be sufficiently staffed or fully meet veterans’ needs.

“What difference does the new clinic make if we have the same doctors?” said Jose Maria Vasquez, commander of America’s Last Patrol in the Valley. “There aren’t enough … we typically have to wait a few weeks for an appointment.”

Vasquez was one of the veterans who marched from Edinburg to San Antonio in November to demand a veterans’ hospital for the Valley.

It’s more important that the Valley have a veterans’ hospital than another outpatient clinic, Vasquez said. Many veterans must travel to San Antonio for care, or else must pay out of pocket if they can’t obtain prior authorization for care at a local hospital, he said.


Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, said he thought the proposed clinic was a “step in the right direction,” even if the journey isn’t over.

“The veterans of deep South Texas are tremendously underserved in terms of access to medical care, so any advancement is positive,” Peña, who also walked with the veterans to San Antonio, said. “It’s a good start … but we still have a long way to go.”

Vasquez, however, said veterans deserve more.

“We have been shunned, cast to one side, and that’s not going to happen anymore,” Vasquez said. “We’ve been quiet too long.”

Pena expands on his comments at his blog:

My initial response was that I saw and still see this as a positive first step in the fufillment of the dreams of so many South Texans who served this country proudly.

Although some Valley Veterans may have felt that way, after talking to a number of them, I can say that any initial response similar to mine quickly faded in that the Veterans who marched as a whole feel that they are given "crumbs" when other communities, who may not have the number of front line Veterans, have access to a Veterans' hospital.


I would suggest to the powers that be that what they first seek is communication. A number of them have expressed to me that the people in Washington are not communicating with them and simply making decisions without their involvement. My second suggestion is that any projects, including this one, have real substance and not mere symbolism. The sentiment you may hear over the next couple of days regarding this story is that the gesture is more symbolic than meaningful.

I want to look at this situation in a positive light and therefore welcome the recent announcement as a positve first step.

Barbara Radnofsky characterized Senator Hutchison's role in this as not in keeping with her promises. From her press release:

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison today reneged on her call for a veterans' hospital in the Valley. Her opponent, Barbara Ann Radnofsky has campaigned for over a year calling for a veterans' hospital south of San Antonio. Hutchison echoed Radnofsky's call in Harlingen on August 17, stating "A real veterans' hospital is needed in the Valley," according to press reports. The planned outpatient clinic in Harlingen, which will replace the small and inadequate outpatient clinic in McAllen is not a hospital. Senator Hutchison has once again deserted the veterans of Texas.

Recently, she voted against the amendment1 which would have provided proper funding for veterans' mental health affairs. The bill she voted against would have provided additional funding for each fiscal year from 2006 through 2010, and would have been used for readjustment counseling, related mental health services, treatment and rehabilitative services for veterans with mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance use disorder.

Details on that particular vote can be found here.

We'll see how this develops. The Rio Grande Guardian, which I can't access because I'm not a subscriber, has a frontpage blurb that says "Cmdr. José Maria Vasquez said if acute care was not provided, America's Last Patrol would file an injunction", so I expect we'll be hearing more soon.

December 29, 2005
Filing news: Piling on in CD22

And then there were three challengers in the GOP primary against Tom DeLay for CD22.

Thomas A. Campbell, who specializes in environmental law, is the third Republican challenger to take on DeLay, who has held the post since 1985.

Campbell paid the filing fee of $3,125 to the Texas Republican Party in Austin on Wednesday and entered his name in the race.

"We need to return some decency and civility to the way we conduct the public's business," Campbell said.

Campbell said he found it has become increasingly difficult for him to vote for DeLay, who was indicted in September and October on charges related to campaign finances. DeLay has since stepped down as House majority leader.

"I wish I had a choice," Campbell said. "And what I am trying to do is provide Republicans who are conservative a choice, an alternative."

Campbell served as general counsel for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration during the administration of President George H.W. Bush.


Fort Bend County Republican Party Chairman Eric Thode described Campbell as a credible candidate but one with low name recognition taking on a popular incumbent.

"He (DeLay) has represented us well, and I am confident he will be re-elected in the primary," Thode said Wednesday.

Thode said Campbell is not well-known among people active in the local GOP parties.

"He has no viable group of supporters," Thode said.

Well, at least they're not claiming he isn't a Republican. Even Chris Elam goes moderately easy on the snark. The Houston Press has more on Campbell. While I agree with Elam and with Greg about his chances, I'll be interested to see if the anti-DeLay trio can hold down the Hammer's percentage of the vote in March. At what level of opposition support does one start whispering about an incumbent's hold on power? I say that if DeLay doesn't crack 70% in the primary, you can commence with the questions.

Checking the current Democratic and Republican filings pages, I see maybe five of 21 GOPers who could go unchallenged, while eight of the 11 Dem incumbents may skate. On the Dem side, I know that CDs 06 and 21 through 24 have at least a rumored challenger, leaving 02, 11, 12, 13, and 26 unaccounted for. For the other team, so far only Chet Edwards (CD17), Solomon Ortiz (CD27), and Eddie Bernice Johnson (CD30) have drawn opponents. Edwards will of course have a tough fight on his hands to retain a seat that the GOP thought it should have won last time. Ortiz won with 63% last year. Johnson had only a Libertarian opponent in 2004 and is in one of the safer districts around.

One last note here is that Ron Paul has apparently lost his primary opponent, which Elam confirms. Dude had name recognition issues anyway.

Moving to the State Rep races, Greg notes that we're down to five unchallenged GOP incumbents in Harris County, as a fellow named Scott Brann has signed on to run against Beverly Woolley, but on the other hand, there's only one GOP challenger to any Democratic incumbent, and he hasn't made his filing yet. Far be it from me to complain if that latter trend holds true, and far be it from me to offer a little advice to the Harris County GOP (which they don't need anyway, given how well things have gone for them lately), but some of these Dem-held districts are fairly purple. Let's do a little comparison. Here's all the Harris County State Rep districts that now have Democratic incumbents, and a measure of how blue they are:

Democrat Dist 2004 % Thomas % Stone % Opposed
Allen 131 100.0 21.4 80.6 No
Bailey 140 67.4 41.0 62.9 No
Coleman 147 100.0 21.4 80.9 No
Dutton 142 80.1 22.4 79.9 No
Edwards 146 100.0 27.8 75.5 No
Farrar 148 100.0 42.6 62.3 No
Hernandez 143 100.0 41.5 62.5 No
Hochberg 137 56.6 45.2 58.0 No
Noriega 145 100.0 40.3 63.3 No
Thompson 141 100.0 27.2 74.7 No
Turner 139 100.0 20.3 81.8 No
Vo 149 50.1 55.4 48.8 Yes

"2004%" is how much of the vote they got last time. "Thomas" is Sheriff Tommy Thomas, who was the GOP high scorer in all Harris County-wide races listed on each Rep's Electoral Analysis page. I'd expect Paul Bettencourt to have done a little better, but he wasn't listed so we'll use what we've got. Similarly, "Stone" is judicial candidate Kathy Stone, the top votegetter on the Dem side. As you can see, there are five districts beyond Hubert Vo's which could maybe be interesting with the right Republican running. But like I said, far be it from me to complain if all these folks are bored next year.

Here's the same thing on the Republican side:

Republican Dist 2004 % Thomas % Stone % Opposed
Bohac 138 63.8 61.9 43.2 No
Callegari 132 100.0 71.1 31.3 No
Crabb 127 70.4 73.2 29.5 Yes
Davis, J 129 100.0 68.3 35.1 Yes
Elkins 135 100.0 66.7 36.3 No
Hamric (*) 126 69.3 68.8 34.0 Yes
Nixon (*) 133 78.3 57.6 46.1 Yes
Riddle 150 100.0 73.2 29.4 Yes
Smith, W 128 65.3 66.5 36.5 No
Talton 144 100.0 62.7 40.4 Yes
Van Arsdale 130 100.0 77.6 24.5 No
Wong 134 54.7 59.4 47.3 Yes
Woolley 136 100.0 73.9 31.5 Yes

Nixon and Hamric's seats are now open; Nixon's total was against an independent, so the percentage is misleading. He got about as many votes as Thomas did, so figure he'd have scored between 55 and 60% against a Dem. The only seat that stands out as needing a challenge that hasn't arrived yet is Dwayne Boahc's HD138. Beyond that, you have to be happy about the level of coverage.

Elsewhere, PerryVsWorld points to this Rebeca Chapa column to note the state of disarray that is the Strayhorn campaign, but what caught my eye was this:

House District 118, the seat being vacated by Uresti, has historically been a Democratic district. His departure has prompted two Republicans to enter the race: George Antuna, a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, and Steve Salyer, a physician assistant who ran for the seat two years ago.

Two Democrats have announced a run in District 118, but neither has enough name recognition to do well. Unless a strong, well-known Democrat emerges soon, that seat will likely go Republican.

Can someone in the still-disorganized Bexar County Democratic Party pay a little more attention to this, please?

Last but not least, some race notes from BOR. Happy reading.

On the radio tonight

I will be a guest on Sean-Paul "The Agonist" Kelly's radio show tonight from 7:30 to 8:00 PM. The broadcast is on San Antonio's KTSA, which is 550 on the AM dial, or you can click the link and listen to a live stream. You can call in to the show at (512) 599-5555, or toll-free at (800) 299-KTSA. Tune in and remind yourself what "a face made for radio, a voice made for blogging" really means.

Two cents on the Texans

I don't follow the Texans very closely. I found myself becoming an Oilers fan back in the 90s, and though my relationship with that team doesn't go back nearly as deeply as it does for many people, I was bitter about the shenanigans that led to their move to Tennessee, and I've never quite warmed up to their replacements as a result. I don't dislike them, I just don't much care one way or the other. Maybe some day I will, but not at this time.

All that said, I think the Texans need to think long and hard before deciding that David Carr is part of the problem as they look to rebuild. I just don't know how you can accurately judge a quarterback who's got such an awful offensive line and a defense that forces him to play catchup most of the time. Carr's career stats are far from awful, especially 2004's. The main thing to worry about is his big dropoff in yards per attempt, but given that his completion percentage this year is identical to last season's, I'd point a finger at the play-calling before I blamed Carr.

For sure, the Texans could do better at quarterback. Carr's a serviceable player, but he may never live up to the hype of being a #1 pick. The question is whether the marginal gain from installing a better QB - at whatever the cost would be - would be greater than the equivalent gain from improving other positions that might need it more. If I were the Texans' general manager, I'd think that there were higher priorities. That eight million he'd be owed to stay around isn't chump change, but I say it's worth it. I don't think they'll get enough of a return if they have to find a new signal caller as well as a new coach and maybe a new GM.

By the way, do you think anyone in the NFL front office is concerned about the possibility that either the Texans or the 49ers will appear to tank on Sunday in order to get a shot at Reggie Bush? I don't think either team will do anything less than give their best effort, but all it takes is one dropped TD pass or one questionable play call, and some media type somewhere will speculate about ulterior motives. If there's been any word from the Commissioner's office about this, I've not seen it. I'm just curious.

UPDATE: You know, like how people spoke about the Rockets tanking when Hakeem Olajuwon was in the draft.

December 28, 2005
Get back to me in a week

The ongoing DeLay appeals process keeps on going as the Court of Criminal Appeals has given Travis County DA Ronnie Earle one week to respond to the motion to dismiss the indictments.

The state's highest criminal court has given Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle one week to respond to DeLay's request that the money laundering charges against him be dismissed. By asking prosecutors to quickly submit briefs on that question, the Court of Criminal Appeals has kept alive DeLay's hopes of resolving the case before the end of January so he can return to the post of House majority leader.

The court, however, has only called for briefs and has not decided whether to hear the case.

"The fact that they didn't simply reject it is an extremely good sign for us," said Dick DeGuerin, a lawyer for DeLay, R-Sugar Land. "And secondly, that they've only given the state one week is also a good sign."

Earle filed a motion with the Court of Criminal Appeals this week accusing DeLay of seeking special treatment by taking his case to the nine-member high court, which generally represents the last level of appeal in criminal cases.

"While the breadth of this court's jurisdiction to entertain petitions . . . is well known, the court has previously expressed reluctance to extend this privilege unless the circumstances are truly extraordinary," his motion says. "Holding a political office does not make a defendant 'extraordinary.' "

George Dix, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, said the Court of Criminal Appeals is asking Earle to weigh in on the question of whether it should hear DeLay's effort to have the charges dismissed.

"A rough analogy is when you want to get in someone's house," Dix said. "It's possible that the occupants could not respond. This is like answering the door, but you still have to talk your way in."

I guess that makes DeLay the door-to-door salesman, and the CCA is the skeptical housewife. I'm pretty sure I don't want to take the analogy any further than that. Tune in next year to see where this all winds up.

Causey's plea

And the deal for Rick Causey is five to seven years in the clink in return for "cooperation" against Skilling and Kenny Boy.

Causey pleaded guilty to securities fraud during a re-arraignment hearing before Judge Sim Lake today. The plea deal calls for a sentence of seven years in prison that could be reduced to five years if he cooperates "fully" with the government. He also agreed to forfeit $1.25 million.

Such cooperation includes debriefing prosecutors on events that led to the company's collapse.

The charge Causey pleaded guilty to normally carries a sentence of up to 10 years. Causey's attorney said he was also working on a settlement agreement with the Securities and Exchange Commission. April 21 was set as a tentative sentencing date for Causey.


Lay and Skilling weren't in the courtroom for the proceedings but their attorneys were present. Judge Lake agreed to delay the start of the Skilling-Lay trial; jury selection will begin at 9 a.m. on Jan. 30.

Daniel Petrocelli, an attorney for Skilling, said today that Causey pleaded guilty "for one reason and and one reason only," to protect his family.

That's all the reaction so far from the Skilling and Lay defense teams. I'm sure there will be more soon. For now, this is a big win for the prosecution. I'll wait to see what they do with it before I have any further thoughts.

Identity theft protection

The good news is that there's momentum in Congress for federal legislation to protect consumers when their personal data is stolen from brokers like ChoicePoint. The bad news is that this new law may well be weaker than current state laws but would nonetheless supersede them.

Bills introduced in Congress after lapses at information broker ChoicePoint, LexisNexis and elsewhere would supersede the growing number of state laws, many of which impose stricter standards on data brokers, banks and credit reporting agencies. Rigorous disclosure requirements in California's law — the first in the nation, in effect since 2003 — brought many of the breaches to light.

Texas is among the states that require companies whose data is compromised to notify in writing the individuals affected.

"Many states are starting to deal with the problem," said Susanna Montezemolo, an analyst for the nonprofit Consumers Union. "A national solution is great if done the right way, but it could actually set us back."

Several of the federal bills have provisions that consumer advocates like, but the drafts keep changing and probably will be combined in the spring, said Chris Hoofnagle, West Coast director of the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center. Some of the bills would force disclosure of an information breach only when the company involved decided there was a "significant" risk of fraud — a loophole Consumers Union said would have stopped disclosure in many of the 2005 cases.

The American Bankers Association said a high threshold for notification was necessary because otherwise consumers would get so used to being warned that they wouldn't take the notices seriously. Banks and information brokers also argue that without a uniform federal rule, most companies will end up complying with the toughest state law in order to have a uniform policy, in effect letting one state regulate national conduct.

Help me out here: If I own a safety deposit box, is my bank required to notify me in the event that it gets broken into or otherwise damaged (by, say, a flood)? If so, then I can't think of any reason why a data broker should be allowed to avoid notification of customers in the event that they get hacked. If they whine about the expense, remind them that a few extra ounces of prevention might be a good investment.

I really have no sympathy for the data brokers. I never chose to entrust the likes of ChoicePoint (who even heard of them before the stories about their stolen data started breaking?) with my information. It shouldn't be up to their discretion to tell me when that trust has been violated.

Causey to take plea agreement

At 2 PM today, former Enron chief accountant Rick Causey will take a plea rather than go to trial.

It wasn't known what the exact terms will be but the deal includes cooperating with the government — which may include testifying in trial — in exchange for the chance at a lesser jail sentence.

Causey was scheduled to go to trial Jan. 17 along with former Chairman Ken Lay and former CEO Jeff Skilling. All three men previously have pleaded not guilty to charges ranging from fraud to conspiracy related to schemes that led to the company's 2001 bankruptcy.

The former chief accounting officer lacked the status and salaries of his two co-defendants, but a plea deal will likely make him the government's new star witness.

Like former Chief Financial Officer Andrew Fastow, who agreed to cooperate with the government in 2004, he has intimate knowledge of the company, particularly in its last days before it filed for bankruptcy.

Causey was responsible for the company's public accounting statements, reported directly to Skilling for years and took part in conference calls with Lay in fall 2001 as Enron fell from being one of the world's largest companies to one of the country's largest bankruptcies.

Unlike Fastow, however, Causey doesn't have the taint of having tried to personally enrich himself through side deals, as Fastow admitted in his plea agreement.

"To have another high ranking officer who knows the numbers but who hasn't been demonized the same way Fastow has serves the government's case very well," said Robert Mintz, a New Jersey-based legal expert who follows the case. "From the standpoint of wanting to go into the trial from a position of strength, this is not what Skilling and Lay were hoping for on the eve of trial."

All of this certainly looks good for the Enron Task Force, and as Tom notes in his overview of Causey's situation, he had more to worry about than Skilling or Kenny Boy due to his closer connections to Fastow and his side agreements. It's a little early to celebrate, though, if you're on the prosecution team. Remember the Enron Broadband trial, and how that was supposed to be an easy win for them? This case is certainly no less complex than that one, and there's the specter of Causey pleading out because he had no choice financially, thus making him less effective on the stand than one might hope:

David Berg, a Houston defense attorney who has followed the case, said the Lay and Skilling teams may try and compare Causey to David Duncan, the former Arthur Andersen executive who pleaded guilty in connection to the 2002 document shredding case. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned a guilty verdict against the accounting firm and Duncan's guilty plea was withdrawn.

"Duncan pled guilty, but when he got on the stand it was pretty clear he was innocent," Berg said, referring to testimony Duncan gave under cross examination. "I think the main hope of the defense will be to make the case that Causey cratered under pressure, that he just pled so he could avoid a long jail sentence."

Tom notes the same thing in this WaPo piece:

For friends of Causey, including his next-door neighbor Steve Huey, word of the advanced plea negotiations is bittersweet. They say Causey is devoted to his three children, the youngest of whom is in eighth grade, and is a devout Catholic who helped raise funds for a new church in the Woodlands, an upscale suburb of Houston.

"I don't think Rick has ever believed he did anything wrong," said Huey, who shared a Christmas Eve dinner with Causey and his wife, Elizabeth. "I think that Rick's concern is over the family and what the eventual outcome will be for the family. As you get closer to trial, you start to weigh the options and weigh the odds and the resources the federal government has."

With all due respect, the jails are full of people who don't believe they did anything wrong. That by itself means nothing. I certainly hope that what we've got here is the feds using one guilty person to put the screws to two others, but we'll have a better idea of that soon. What we probably won't have soon is the start of this trial, as I'm sure the defense will renew motions to move the proceedings elsewhere. Stay tuned.

Rowling about to embark on Book Seven

JK Rowling will begin work on the last Harry Potter novel on January 15.

2006 will be the year when I write the final book in the Harry Potter series. I contemplate the task with mingled feelings of excitement and dread, because I can't wait to get started, to tell the final part of the story and, at last, to answer all the questions (will I ever answer all of the questions? Let's aim for most of the questions); and yet it will all be over at last and I can't quite imagine life without Harry.

However (clears throat in stern British manner) this is no time to get maudlin.

I have been fine-tuning the fine-tuned plan of seven during the past few weeks so that I can really set to work in January. Reading through the plan is like contemplating the map of an unknown country in which I will soon find myself. Sometimes, even at this stage, you can see trouble looming; nearly all of the six published books have had Chapters of Doom. The quintessential, never, I hope, to be beaten Chapter That Nearly Broke My Will To Go On was chapter nine, 'Goblet of Fire' (appropriately enough, 'The Dark Mark'.)

Despite all her protestations, I can't quite see this as being the true end of the Harry Potter universe. Even if the series ends in a way that would preclude further sequels (for example, if Harry dies, or if Book Seven has a coda that takes us through the adult lives of the main characters), I suspect there will be a strong demand for stories involving just about any other characters of interest. People still buy "Star Trek" novels and comics, after all. The main question is what will Rowling allow to happen to her intellectual property, since Lord knows she won't need the money. But first, we need to see how this plotline ends. Stay tuned.

December 27, 2005
Psst...Wanna buy a used rollercoaster?

I feel it is my duty to inform you that much of AstroWorld is for sale via auction, with bidding to take place January 6-8 starting at 9 AM Friday at the now-former park's Kirby Drive location. What you might care to do with Greezed Lightning or XLR8, or where you might want to keep them, is none of my business. I may have to check this out for some of the collectibles, though I daresay I'll be priced out of any auction pretty quickly. Click over and see for yourself what's available. Thanks to Houstonist for the catch.

Music industry turmoil watch

Couple of interesting articles about the state of the music industry and how some people are looking for new ways to do business in it. First, from the Chron, this piece on all-digital record labels.

In 1978, Devo frontman Gerald Casale spotted his band's debut LP in a record store bin for the first time. He was struck by an undeniable thought: The band had made it.

"It's what you've been busting your butt for, and finally it happens," Casale said.

Seeing the latest release by his new group hit a virtual bin as a digital file on Apple Computer's iTunes Music Store was less than exciting by comparison.

"This time it's like window shopping," Casale said.

His new music is distributed by Cordless Recordings, a new breed of label that has dumped CDs and other traditional formats in favor of offering music only online. The strategy is meant to cut the cost of catapulting a new artist to fortune and fame by tapping the medium where young fans are finding music — online.

"When you look at the cost of a major label signing an artist, it costs about a half-million dollars," said Jac Holzman, who founded Elektra Records in 1950 and now oversees Cordless, a unit of Warner Music Group. He said Cordless does it for "significantly less," but wouldn't be more specific.


Since its launch a year ago, Universal Music Group's UMe Digital has put out several online albums, extended play recordings and singles by artists such as Posies co-founder Ken Stringfellow and singer-songwriter Will Owsley.

"The philosophy is to get artists who have a fan base and continually tour and just give them an avenue where they can release music on their timetable," said Jay Gilbert, senior director of new media for the label.

The thought that went through my head as I read this story was "You mean, the major labels are just now doing this sort of thing?" Who knows how far along this concept could have advanced if the industry had recognized the change in market conditions and worked to adapt their business models, instead of suing their customers as a last-ditch effort to keep doing what they've always done.

Over in the NYT, there's this article on independent labels and how they've largely weathered the slowdown in CD sales.

Exploiting online message boards, music blogs and social networks, independent music companies are making big advances at the expense of the four global music conglomerates, whose established business model of blockbuster hits promoted through radio airplay now looks increasingly outdated.

CD and digital album sales so far this year are down 8 percent compared with the same period a year ago, according to Nielsen SoundScan data. And while sales of digital tracks through services like iTunes have risen 150 percent, to well over 320 million songs this year, that rise is not enough to offset the plunge in album sales. Overall sales are down less than 5 percent if the digital singles are bundled into units of 10 and counted as albums, according to estimates by Billboard magazine.

Still, despite the slide, dozens of independent labels are faring well with steady-selling releases by, among others, the Miami rapper Pitbull and the indie bands Hawthorne Heights, Bright Eyes, Interpol and the Arcade Fire. Independent labels account for more than 18 percent of album sales this year - their biggest share of the market in at least five years, according to Nielsen SoundScan data. (If several big independent companies whose music is marketed by the major music labels distribution units are included, the figure exceeds 27 percent.)

The surge by independents comes as the four dominant music conglomerates - Universal Music Group, Sony BMG Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group and EMI Group - find themselves hamstrung in their traditional ways of doing business by an array of forces, including a crackdown on payola (undisclosed payments made to broadcasters in exchange for airplay).

In a world of broadband connections, 60-gigabyte MP3 players and custom playlists, consumers have perhaps more power than ever to indulge their curiosities beyond the music that is presented through the industry's established outlets, primarily radio stations and MTV.

"Fans are dictating," said John Janick, co-founder of Fueled by Ramen, the independent label in Tampa, Fla., whose roster includes underground acts like Panic! At the Disco and Cute Is What We Aim For. "It's not as easy to shove something down people's throats anymore and make them buy it. It's not even that they are smarter; they just have everything at their fingertips. They can go find something that's cool and different. They go tell people about it and it just starts spreading."

What a concept, huh? They always told me in economics class that full access to information is a necessity for a truly free market. Nice to see it in action here.

Filing news: Two more for SD18

The Republican field for the now-open SD18 seat has gotten more crowded as State Rep. Glenn Hegar of Katy and a veterinarian from Wharton named Dwight King have jumped in. Here's the Chron on Hegar:

Hegar, a rice and corn farmer, is a member of the House Appropriations Committee and a newly appointed member of the Sunset Advisory Commission.

He is one of four Republicans who have lined up to replace Armbrister in the significant race. A gain of one Republican in the Senate would give the GOP 20 of 31 seats, one short of the two-thirds majority that could prove crucial on partisan issues. Senate rules require a two-thirds vote to advance legislation.

One of Hegar's rivals in the March Republican primary will be Gary Gates, who is in the real estate and ranching business in Fort Bend County and lost two races to Hegar for the House seat he holds.

Others who have filed for the Republican nomination include David Stall of Fayetteville, the city manager in Shoreacres, and rancher-businessman Herman W. Brune of Columbus.

As I've said before, while the likelihood of the Senate going to 20-11 GOP is high, in practical terms it doesn't mean much since Armbrister was at best a sporadic supporter of Democratic initiatives. I'd just about prefer having someone like David Stall in that seat, assuming State Rep. Robby Cook declines to make the challenge here.

Don't know a thing about Dwight King - Elam has some info from the Wharton newspaper. I'll be shocked if this race doesn't go to a runoff, as it doesn't look like there's a clear frontrunner. Well, if hair quality counts for anything, it's Hegar by a mile, but beyond that, expect overtime.

No word yet on who will run to replace Hegar. Quorum Report mentions State Republican Executive Committee member Michael Franks as a possible contender. Filing deadline is in a week, so we'll know soon enough.

The Year of Blogging Dangerously

It may be a little early for year-end wrapup stuff, but the National Journal's William Beutler has one anyway that was worth the read. Check it out. Or, alternately, go read who won the first annual Kippie Awards. That one comes with the standard beverage warning, so be prepared.

Making the case for Blyleven

If you've read this site for awhile, you know that I firmly believe that Bert Blyleven belongs in the Hall of Fame. His vote total has crept steadily upwards every year, but he's still only a bit closer than halfway there (he got about 40% of the vote last year). This year, without any locks for enshrinement among the newcomers to the ballot, some people who do the actual voting seem to be taking a closer look at his credentials, and coming away rethinking past reluctance. Here's a series of articles from the Baseball Analysts blog from before Christmas on the Compleat Case for Bert Blyleven. If that's still not enough for you, here's a twofer from Jay Jaffe to take you across the finish line. If you're still not convinced, I don't know what else to day.

December 26, 2005
Justice denied

I'm going to join with Tom here in a little Richard Justice-bashing for his lame column today.

If people keep reminding Tim Purpura he has been on the job 14 months without acquiring a player of consequence, he's going to feel compelled to do something stupid.

Maybe that's why he offered Nomar Garciaparra $6 million. That's a lot of money for a player out much of the last two seasons with injuries.

Maybe that's also why there are reports Purpura would be willing to trade Brad Lidge.

If Purpura had signed Garciaparra, the next move should have been docking him a month's pay. If he trades Lidge, he should be fired.

Money is too tight to throw at a player with a history of breaking down. And trading Lidge would be so monumentally stupid, it's almost beyond discussion.

Sure the Astros need a hitter. Before they run out and get one, they'd better take stock of what they have.

Their bullpen is a strength. With Chad Qualls, Dan Wheeler and Lidge, they have the seventh, eighth and ninth innings taken care of on most nights.

Go ahead and get rid of one of baseball's best closers. Start watching the other guys try to do what he did. Pitching the eighth is different than pitching the ninth. Ask Octavio Dotel.

Truth is, a left-field platoon of Luke Scott and Chris Burke might be as productive as Garciaparra.

The Astros are still in transition. They still don't know how good Willy Taveras, Jason Lane and others are going to be. This season will be about them attempting to adjust to pitchers who have seen enough to exploit their weaknesses.

Where to start? First, the case for and against Nomar Garciaparra goes beyond the injury risk, which is real and reasonably worrisome. The thing about Nomar is that if he were healthy, he'd probably do pretty well at Minute Maid Park, which is a pretty friendly place for right-handhed hitters. As Joe Sheehan pointed out, Nomar has hit a lot better at Fenway Park the last three years than he has on the road. It's not at all unreasonable to assume that he'd perform similarly at the Juice Box, and for $6 million, that seems like a decent risk-to-reward ratio. I'll say this: A healthy Nomar would have a much better year in Houston than he will in Los Angeles. It's not unrealistic to worry about paying for someone who's only played 143 games the last two seasons, but the question to ask is whether a half season of Nomar would still be more productive than a full season of Luke Scott and Chris Burke. It's not at all clearcut to me that it wouldn't.

We may not know how good the likes of Burke, Scott, and Willy Taveras may be, but there are various projection systems that can give you a rough but decent idea. Despite the hype for Taveras, players like him historically don't generate a lot of value, and there's a real chance he could turn into a world-class outmaker. The upside for a guy like Taveras is that he adds enough points to his batting average that his low walk rate (25 in 592 at-bats) and lack of power (13 doubles) don't drag him down past the point of usefulness. The downside is too gruesome to contemplate, but on a good overall offensive team, you could maybe hide him for while he's a good fielder. In other words, the Yankees could have used him, but the Stros need to keep an open mind.

Still, the best bit of unintentional comedy is "Pitching the eighth is different than pitching the ninth. Ask Octavio Dotel." Why not ask Lidge himself? Who do you think was pitching the eighth inning while Dotel was struggling as the Astros' closer? The fact of the matter is that very few 80-inning-per-year pitchers are worth the kind of money that routinely gets thrown at guys who've claimed the vaunted "Closer" label. The Astros may not have gotten much for their trade of Billy Wagner, but dumping his salary made all kinds of sense. Brad Lidge is a heck of a pitcher, but he's sure to be overpaid very soon now. Flipping him for a bat would certainly be reasonable and may very well be a steal. Besides, that would mean a promotion for Chad Qualls, and it'd be worth it to see Lair do the Happy Dance. Saying that the idea of moving Lidge is beyond discussion is what's really stupid.

Justice can be a smart guy when he wants to, but efforts like this one remind me why I prefer to consume my serious sports news from other sources.

Where will we put all the people?

I like a good article about the future of growth in Harris County as much as the next guy, but I'm a little bugged by this one. I'll tell you why after the usual excerpt:

Over the next 30 years, most of Harris County's remaining open space will succumb to subdivisions, office buildings and shopping centers where millions of new residents will live and work, projections by local planners show.

The spread of development, particularly west and northwest of Houston, is among the more striking trends shown in preliminary population and job growth projections developed by the Houston-Gal-
veston Area Council for the eight-county Houston region.

The potential loss of open space alarms conservationists and others concerned about suburban sprawl. It is among the factors driving an effort by business and civic leaders to find different ways to accommodate the region's anticipated growth.

While continuing to support the economic benefits of new development, local leaders increasingly are seeking strategies to protect the environment and reserve land for parks and recreational use.

The problem with this piece is that not a single "local leader", at least of the elected variety, is quoted in it. I'm happy to see people like Robin Holzer get called for a quote in any article that talks about transportation projects and their effect on where development gets planned, but without a few words from the likes of Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, there's no way to measure how seriously what she says is being taken. Maybe Eckels, or anyone else associated with Harris County Commissioners' Court, was not available for comment - it was Christmas yesterday, after all - but without knowing what they think about this, I can't judge whether to be alarmed, relieved, angry, or something else. I guess for now the best I can hope for is a followup piece with the reaction from the "local leaders" that's so clearly missing here.

Oh, well. It could be worse. At least we're not in danger of sinking into the Gulf of Mexico. Not yet, anyway.

UPDATE: Tory weighs in.

It's still Christmastime for polluters

Why is it that polluters have such an easy time of it? They can always count on a little help from their friends in the Legislature.

The majority of Houston-area lawmakers in the Texas House voted against legislation intended to protect the public from toxic air pollution, a Houston Chronicle analysis of 2005 voting records has found.

The five rejected amendments would have made the state's health screening levels for pollution more strict, required companies to continuously monitor emissions and set fines for the periodic releases known as "upsets" that plague fence-line neighborhoods.

Yet 20 of 34 representatives in the eight-county region, where toxic pollution problems have been well-documented, particularly along the Houston Ship Channel, voted to table these actions.

All 20 of the dissenters are Republicans, some of them representing industrial districts such as Pasadena, Baytown and Seabrook, where people and industry exist side by side.

Typically, a party-line vote on legislation to increase regulations on industry would not be surprising. However, legislators during this year's regular session were presented with increasing evidence that toxic pollution was a problem locally and that Houston residents were more concerned than ever about its impact on health.

"These numbers are shocking when you consider the myriad of air issues facing the Houston area," said Colin Leyden, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters. The League recently reviewed votes on three of the amendments as part of its annual Scorecard; the Chronicle analysis revisited and expanded upon the group's effort.


Democrats who backed the amendments were banking on that momentum continuing into the session. It didn't.

The issue "was certainly brought to the forefront for Houston legislators, especially. I was hoping that there might be enough pressure building that there would be some support behind these efforts," said Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, the only Democrat to not vote to keep all five amendments in House Bill 1900, legislation that streamlines the reporting of pollution.

"You are still having to overcome industry opposition," Eiland said. "Industry still has a lot of say-so, even in areas like this, where public health and quality of life are at issue."

Rep. Toby Goodman, R-Arlington, whose tabled amendment would have lowered the levels the state uses to screen pollution's health effects, agreed.

"I didn't need many more votes. I am a mainstream Republican member and a lot of mainstream Republicans follow me," Goodman said. "I get closer than anyone else, but I still don't win. Industry is the reason you don't win, the mindset of the members of the House against further regulation, and the misguided perception that if you vote for an amendment to clean up the air and water you are some sort of liberal activist."


The lack of support by the Houston delegation for pollution-cutting measures this year could crimp plans by Mayor Bill White, who has said he will use the Legislature as a means to improve air quality in the region.

Elena Marks, the mayor's health policy director, said the administration will work next session to change some minds.

"Ultimately, I don't think it will cut along party lines. For those for whom it is not a top priority, we have to work that much harder to educate them," she said. "I'm just not sure they have been educated on balancing out need for regulations and need for public health."

Changing minds is nice. Changing out a few legislators would also be a good idea.

A plea for Causey?

Hope everyone who celebrated Christmas yesterday had a good one. The one piece of news from the day was this story about former Enron chief accounting officer Rick Causey talking to the feds about possibly taking a plea.

Causey has been in plea talks in the past, so it would not be a surprise to anyone should he reach an agreement with the government, said Kent Schaffer, a Houston defense attorney who has followed the case. A plea deal is unlikely to postpone the trial.

"Typically a defendant pleading out won't be grounds for other defendants to delay the trial, especially in a case like this where it was no secret negotiations would go on intermittently," Schaffer said.


"I've talked to Rick Causey myself, and I don't believe he willfully did anything wrong," said Mike Ramsey, lead attorney for Lay. "I don't believe he would agree to plead guilty to a crime when he didn't commit one."

Skilling attorney Daniel Petrocelli also cast doubt on a Causey plea.

"Over the past year, I've spent a lot of time with Rick Causey. He is an honest man and consummate professional, who worked his heart out for Enron," Petrocelli said. "He never — let me repeat — never committed any fraud or criminal conduct of any kind. He knows it, and the government knows it."

Causey's name is first on the indictment at the center of next month's trial but last on the minds of most people. As chief accounting officer he lacked the status — and the salary — of former CEO Skilling or former Chairman Lay.

But he is an essential link between the government's likely star witness, former chief financial officer Andrew Fastow, and the other two executives.

Causey and Fastow worked closely together, dividing between them the oversight of key financial and accounting operations at the energy giant.

As he has done all along, Tom Kirkendall provides a counterweight to stories about the Enron Task Force and its prosecutions. His thoughts on the possible Causey plea and how a Wall Street Journal reporter who is covering this case may be a little too vested in a particular outcome are here and here.

December 25, 2005
Need a little Christmas?

Haul Out The Holly
Put up the tree before my spirit falls again
Fill up the stocking but deck the halls now

For we need a little christmas
right this very minute
Candles in the window
Carols at the spinet
Yes, we need a little christmas right this very minute

It hasn't snowed a single flurry
But santa dear we're in a hurry

Climb down the chimney
Turn on the brightest string of lights I've ever seen
Slice up the fruit cake
It's time we hung some tinsle on that evergreen bough

For I've grown a little leaner
Grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder
Grown a little older

And I need a little angel
Sitting on my shoulder
Need a little Christmas now

For we need a little music
Need a little laughter
Need a little singing
Ringing through the rafter

And we need a little snappy
"Happy ever after"
Need a little Christmas now

Merry Christmas, everybody!

So long, Foley's

Yesterday was your last chance to shop at Foley's.

The fact that Foley's will become Macy's in the fall of next year means little to some people. Others might even welcome it, being able to shop in familiar stores with a new name and perhaps a different personality.

But to vast numbers of people with deep Houston roots, Foley's and holiday shopping are almost synonymous. Residents of the city and surrounding towns have special memories of driving downtown to see the Foley's Christmas window displays and entering the store to join the hustle and bustle.

"Anyone who lived here had to shop at Foley's," said Martin Kaplan, whose own family department store, Kaplan's Ben-Hur, will soon close after 92 years.

"In a sense, it's hard to imagine Houston without Foley's. Foley's has been Houston for so long."

For many locals, seeing the Foley's name fade from the holidays brings on a touch of melancholy.

"Foley's is a huge name, and you're going to see a lot of people who are sad about it," said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a national retail consulting and investment banking firm in New York.

"There are people who are loyal to Foley's. A lot of people had wonderful experiences."

I'm not much of a department store shopper, so this doesn't really affect me one way or the other. I'm just always sad to see a piece of Houston's history vanish. So long, Foley's. We'll miss you.

December 24, 2005
Once again, Merry Christmas, Mel Torme

Every year around this time, I link to my favorite Christmas story, featuring Mark Evanier and Mel Torme. I do it because every year it's worth reading again. Check it out and see for yourself why.

It's always Christmastime for polluters

The Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention, also known as GHASP, has something to tell you. From their press release:

When chemical plants and refineries violate air pollution regulations, they can count on light fines from Texas environmental officials, according to a new study by the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention. In a review of 26 enforcement cases from the Houston region, GHASP found that the state assessed just 14% of the potential fines that it could have levied against major polluters.

"Over the past five years, the state has routinely given big breaks to big polluters," said John D. Wilson, executive director of the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention. "In several cases, the fines were hundreds of thousands of dollars less than they could have been - if the state had strictly followed its own policies."

The study demonstrated that three systematic problems at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality contribute to the failure to collect adequate fines: lax prosecution of weak leak detection programs, breaches of the state's penalty calculation policy, and unjustifiable dismissals of enforcement cases. Though the state did assess most or all of the potential fine in some cases, that occurred only if the potential penalty was small. If the potential fine was more than $40,000, the TCEQ never collected even half of the potential fine.

"We are asking Texas to adhere to its own policies," explained Wilson, "and we want the US Environmental Protection Agency to step in and hold the state accountable for being so lenient with those companies that violate air pollution regulations."

Go here for their full report, their comment letter, and their letters requesting action by the EPA and Region 6 Enforcement Section.

Banking on bridge

Take that, poker!

Poker may be all the rage with junior high school kids, but the two richest men in the country are betting a million dollars they have a better card game to offer young people: bridge.

That's contract bridge, the four-player card game whose popularity peaked a half-century ago and is now played largely by senior citizens, country clubbers, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and investor Warren Buffett.

The two billionaires are passionate bridge players who compete in tournaments and online under the names "Chalengr" for Gates and "T-Bone" for Buffett. Now they want to fund a program to teach bridge in schools.

Pastimes of the 1950s are already being revived among kids: Poker is popular, and schools have turned to ballroom dancing to teach teamwork.

Now Gates and Buffett have hired Buffett's bridge partner, Sharon Osberg, to start a program to teach contract bridge in junior high schools. They've anted up $1 million to fund it.

"Bill Gates and I kind of cooked it up together," says Buffett, who thinks bridge would teach kids math skills, logical thinking and how to work with others. "We hope we could get a school program someplace, where the kids were taught the game and ... develop a lot of competition between schools."


And unlike poker, there's no money involved. "We play only for glory," says Linda Granell, marketing director for the bridge league.

What bridge has over chess and poker is that it requires players to learn to work with someone else, Buffett says.

"You have to learn to understand your partner, to be tolerant, sympathetic, encouraging," he says. "Those are skills that are not bad to have in life."

If a program gets going, Buffett and Gates have promised to take on the winners of a school tournament.

"We'd go down and play the best team," Buffett says. "It would be fun for me and Bill to play the champions. And it might spur them on some."

Two minor quibbles: One, as I understand it Sharon Osberg has also been Bill Gates' partner in tournaments, and two, while ACBL events are for glory alone, one can certainly play bridge for money. Beyond that, all I can say is that I'd rather play bridge than poker any day. Your mileage may vary, but that's my game.