The news that Commissioner El Franco Lee, who holds the distinction of being the first African American to be elected as a commissioner in Harris County, had passed away on January 3, after suffering a fatal heart attack at his home, came as a huge surprise to many and immediately sent shockwaves throughout the entire state of Texas. Lee served as commissioner of Precinct 1, which includes much of the inner city and south Houston, for over 30 years. He was 66.
At the time of his death, Lee was in his seventh term in office as Harris County Commissioner for Precinct 1, and had filed for re-election, to which he was unopposed. Because he had no Democratic opponent that had filed prior to the deadline, he was assured of being the Democratic nominee on the November 2016 ballot, and would have been unopposed and eventually re-elected for an eight term because there will be no Republican on the November ballot.
According to Texas state law, whenever a seat is vacated for any reason, the county judge must pick a commissioner to complete the term. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who had that legal obligation to appoint a temporary successor to replace Lee, went on the record as saying that several people called him immediately expressing interest in being Lee’s replacement, almost as soon as they caught wind he had died.
On January 22, Emmett named attorney and former mayoral candidate Gene Locke, to be the interim commissioner and complete Lee’s term through Dec. 31, 2016.
The process to select an African American Democrat who was ready to serve and equipped to handle many of the projects that were already underway, seemed simple enough, but the process of deciding who will represent the taxpaying constituents in Precinct 1 come November is a tad bit more complicated and something that everyone should be concerned about.
Because there is no Republican running for the seat, Harris County Democratic Party officials are tasked by state law to choose a replacement candidate to replace Lee in Precinct 1, which could be sometime next month. Lane Lewis, the Democratic Party chair for Harris County, will oversee this process, but whoever the candidate is, they will run unopposed in November. The Harris County Democratic party will take over the office by January 2017, if Gene Locke, the interim commissioner, has not stepped down prior to that date.
In a letter sent out to members of the Harris County Democratic Party on Feb. 11, 2016, Chair Lewis wrote the following concerning the process of finding a replacement for Lee in Precinct 1:
Due to the loss of Commissioner El Franco Lee, The Harris County Democratic Party must move forward with choosing a replacement candidate for this November’s ballot for Harris County Commissioner, Precinct 1.
Commissioner Lee served our community well for many years and leaves behind a legacy that will be remembered for generations. I am confident that our Precinct 1 Chairs will select the best candidate to continue the great service Precinct 1 voters have come to expect.
Keep an eye out for further emails with meeting location information in a few months. All meetings will be open to the public.
May 21 from 10am-Noon – Public Forum to meet the individuals interested in consideration for the Commissioner Precinct 1 position (All are welcome and public comment will be encouraged)
June 25 from 10am-Noon – Commissioner Precinct 1 Precinct Chair meeting to select a new ballot candidate. (All are welcome, but only Precinct Chairs who reside within Commissioners Precinct One and whose most recent term of office as Precinct Chairs commences June 13, 2016, are permitted (by the Texas Election Code) to vote.
NOTE: If the Precinct Chairs in Commissioner Precinct 1 elect to place a current office holder or candidate on the November ballot for Precinct 1, then it may trigger further meetings to replace that person in their original ballot position.”
This process is all driven by laws designed by Texas legislators.
According to State law, the ELECTION CODE TITLE 9. CANDIDATES CHAPTER 145. WITHDRAWAL, DEATH AND INELIGIBILITY OF CANDIDATE
SUBCHAPTER A. GENERAL PROVISIONS
Sec. 145.036. FILLING VACANCY IN NOMINATION. (a) Except as provided by Subsection (b), if a candidate’s name is to be omitted from the ballot under Section 145.035, the political party’s state, district, county, or precinct executive committee, as appropriate for the particular office, may nominate a replacement candidate to fill the vacancy in the nomination.
(b) An executive committee may make a replacement nomination following a withdrawal only if:
(1) the candidate:
(A) withdraws because of a catastrophic illness that was diagnosed after the first day after the date of the regular filing deadline for the general primary election and the illness would permanently and continuously incapacitate the candidate and prevent the candidate from performing the duties of the office sought; and
(B) files with the withdrawal request a certificate describing the illness and signed by at least two licensed physicians;
(2) no political party that held primary elections has a nominee for the office sought by the withdrawing candidate as of the time of the withdrawal; or
(3) the candidate has been elected or appointed to fill a vacancy in another elective office or has become the nominee for another office.
(c) Under the circumstances described by Subsection (b)(2), the appropriate executive committee of each political party making nominations for the general election for state and county officers may make a replacement nomination for the office sought by the withdrawing candidate.
(d) For the purpose of filling a vacancy, a majority of the committee’s membership constitutes a quorum. To be nominated, a person must receive a favorable vote of a majority of the members present.
(e) A vacancy in a nomination for a district, county, or precinct office that was made by primary election may not be filled before the beginning of the term of office of the county executive committee members elected in the year in which the vacancy occurs.
This process of having people who are interested in holding key positions of elected office be “anointed and appointed,” as opposed to being elected by the people, does not sit well with many individuals, especially many of the taxpayers in Precinct 1.
One major item of concern, expressed by many in the community, is the potential for those who are tasked with making the decision to select the next commissioner to be influenced by things that the regular voters aren’t influenced by, such as promises and material possessions.
The Precinct 1 Chairs will be responsible for selecting the candidate that they believe should replace Lee and serve the constituents.
Under the Texas Election Code, once the March Primary Election and Run-Off has concluded, the Democratic Precinct Judges in Commissioners Court Precinct 1 will meet to select a replacement candidate to appear on the November ballot for a full four-year term. Under the law, there is no option of a Special Election for selecting a replacement candidate for the November General Election ballot. This raises the question of whether voters really have a say in who they want to represent them, and whether this is taxation without representation that they choose.
Another major concern is the potential trickle-down effect this selection would have if any current elected official is selected to be Lee’s replacement, and that individual’s elected office would have to be filled using the same process, without ever having a vote from the people.
Under the law, an individual’s name cannot appear on the November ballot for two positions, which means that elected officials currently up for re-election in the same year cannot be listed on the November ballot to replace Lee as commissioner and for re-election to their current office.
In essence, there would only be a few individuals making decisions about who would represent the constituents for lengthy periods of time, and the people would not have a say in who they would want to represent them.
The attraction that many individuals have in regards to filling the seat to replace Commissioner Lee makes sense, in that a Harris County Commissioner, as of 2014, makes an annual base salary of $165,900, and has a tremendous amount of control and power to build bridges, roads and parks with very little legislative hindrance. Another important thing that is attractive for many is that a Harris County Commissioner never has to worry about term limits.
According to various reports, several individuals have expressed an interest or have been rumored to be interested in being a candidate for the nomination or selection as the Democratic nominee to replace El Franco Lee on the ballot such as: Houston City Council Members Dwight Boykins (Dist. D), Jerry Davis (Dist. B) and Larry Green (Dist. K); local businesswoman Georgia Provost; State Representative Harold Dutton (D-129); State Senator Rodney Ellis (D-27); and interim replacement Gene Locke.
So now that we know who is slated to make the choice for the next commissioner of Precinct 1, there are still several other questions that linger and need answering, such as:
Is there a true and open process in place for voters to know how the individuals the Precinct Chairs are considering to be the replacement for Commissioner Lee are being vetted? Will the process be open to the public? Will voters have the ability to participate in any way and if so how? Can the voters demand that a regular election be conducted in place of this current process that is the current state law? Will the voters have the ability to tell their Precinct Chair who they want them to vote for in a public and democratic process? What criteria will Precinct Chairs use to make their selection for the replacement for Commissioner Lee?
The Forward Times will continue to follow the process for replacing Commissioner Lee and will seek to get answers to the questions that are being posed so that the voters of Precinct 1 have clarity and feel comfortable with the process of how their representatives will be chosen.