Since its founding in January 1960, to present, the Forward Times has stood by that conviction, primarily because it was the belief of the founder that the same people who seek a Forward Times endorsement for public office should be scrutinized and called to the carpet whenever the situation was warranted.
As we look at the landscape of politics in the Greater Houston area at the present time, it is clear that the position taken up by the Forward Times’ founder decades ago was the right position then, and is even more applicable to address what is going on in the Greater Houston area now.
As many of our readers know, the Forward Times published an article in early May entitled, Elected or Appointed? Why Voters Won’t Have a Chance to Select El Franco Lee’s Replacement, where readers were informed about the process of replacing El Franco Lee, which included the precinct chairs for Precinct One having the state-mandated responsibility of voting to choose his replacement. The article also highlighted the importance of this decision, and how losing El Franco Lee would not only have an impact on Harris County Precinct One, but would also lead to a proverbial “trickle-down” effect based on who the 125 Precinct Chairs choose to select as his replacement. Depending on who those 125 Precinct Chairs select, it would have a major impact on the landscape of politics in the Greater Houston area, and could prove catastrophic, considering the loss of African American political experience that has been gained over the past several decades – in both the Texas House and Senate.
There have been several major issues that have come to the Forward Times’ attention that need to be addressed, but one issue has completely alarmed us to the point where we must bring it to the community’s attention. That issue involves political bullying and the use of threat tactics.
Over the past several weeks, the Forward Times has received a number of phone calls from Precinct Chairs in Harris County Precinct One, indicating they feel threatened and are being bullied into casting a vote for one of the candidates that has indicated their desire to fill the Harris County Precinct One Commissioner’s seat that has been vacant since the shocking and untimely death of El Franco Lee in January.
It has come to the Forward Times’ attention that some precinct chairs, for whatever reason, signed pledge cards to certain candidates several months ago, and prior to the Harris County Democratic Party convening a public forum at the CWA Local 6222 on May 22nd, to meet any individuals who were even interested in being considered for the position, and to understand what the process and rules would be to select any of those interested individuals.
The concern for many of those precinct chairs who signed those pledge cards, is that many of them have changed their minds about who they want to vote for, but indicate they have been threatened with threat tactics and retaliatory rhetoric, such as warning them that if they chose to switch their vote to another interested candidate, they would lose their precinct chair seat, and more despicable, be sued if they chose to exercise their right to change their mind.
What many find disturbing about these accusations is that precinct chairs are elected officials who are subjected to the same rules as other elected officials, and therefore the vote they cast is not their personal vote. The votes cast by precinct chairs are representative votes, and their responsibility is not to a particular candidate, but is instead to the constituents they represent.
At the state Democratic convention in San Antonio this past Friday, Texas Democratic Party chair Gilbert Hinojosa was informed about the serious issue of the precinct chairs being threatened, and them being made to feel obligated to vote for select candidates based off of the signed pledge affidavits. When asked if the pledges were binding, Hinojosa indicated the pledges were not binding, and that any commitments made prior to the vote were not “worth the paper their written on when it comes to the precinct chairs voting,” and that the precinct chairs “can change their minds any day” without the fear of being sued. He indicated that if any precinct chairs felt frightened or had any concerns, they should call him.
The thought of being sued because they signed a pledge several months prior, coupled with the threat of having their seats taken away from them, has been a major concern for many precinct chairs; many of which are senior citizens and have served their communities and the public in this capacity for years.
Another issue that has been floating around as it relates to this critically important and historical selection, is whether an individual interested in being the replacement for El Franco Lee has the right to choose their mind about how they wish to serve the public, if they so choose.
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 chose and swore in attorney, former mayoral candidate and longtime friend of El Franco Lee, Gene Locke, to finish out the remainder of Lee’s term as the interim commissioner through Dec. 31, 2016.
When he was appointed by Judge Emmett, he stated that his intentions were to go back to his prominent law practice and not continue past the term he was tasked to finish out for Lee. After serving in the role, however, he decided to throw his name in the hat and express his interest in serving beyond his role as the interim commissioner.
Any criticism placed on a candidate or a precinct chair that changes their minds, when it comes to their decision to run for or pursue public office, should never be viewed as betrayal. Several of the interested candidates for the Harris County Commissioner seat have already made public service commitments themselves, and have either been sworn in to serve in their current capacity as an elected official, or have filed for re-election to continue representing their constituents in their respective position. None of those interested candidates, who currently serve in other roles as elected officials, have yet to resign from their current office or remove their names from consideration as the Democratic nominee on the November ballot.
So, when it comes to any accusations that an interested candidate should be vilified for changing their minds as to how they choose to serve the public, every interested candidate should be viewed the same across the board.
Another 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 accept bribes and be influenced by things regular voters aren’t influenced by, such as promises and material possessions. The allegations of bribery of precinct chairs are widespread, but unable to be proven because it is uncommon for anyone to acknowledge they accept a bribe, especially when acknowledging it could lead to criminal charges being filed.
The last, and most important issue surrounding the replacement for El Franco Lee’s seat, is that of the “trickle-down” effect that this would have and how it will negatively impact the African American community. Seniority in politics cannot be negotiated. Seniority in politics can’t be bought and it can’t be traded. It must be earned.
When former state representative Sylvester Turner became the newly-elected mayor of Houston in December, the African American community lost 26 years of experience and positioning in the Texas House. The same rings true for the defeat of former state representative Al Edwards. The African American community lost decades of experience and positioning.
If any current elected official who is interested in being Lee’s replacement is chosen by the precinct chairs, then that individual’s seat would have to be filled using the same process of only 125 precinct chairs deciding, without ever having to get one single vote from the people. In essence, there are only 125 precinct chairs in Precinct One making the decision for the 1.1 million people who are residents of Precinct One. That is a lot to digest, especially when you consider that under Texas law, no person can be listed on the November ballot for two positions.
All in all, this process of selecting the replacement for El Franco Lee has been chaotic and confusing, and the Harris County Democratic Party (HCDP) has not helped make things better. Many people don’t realize that not only is the HCDP responsible for coordinating the precinct chair votes for the Harris County Precinct One Commissioner’s seat, they are also doing the same thing right now for a Criminal Court seat and a Family Court seat. Did you know that?
If the precinct chairs select any current elected official from the Texas House or Texas Senate, then there could be a staggering 6 positions that will be only selected by a handful of precinct chairs, and not by the people who pay their taxes in those areas. Think about that for a minute.
In the last article, the Forward Times posed several questions and there are several more that need answering after hearing about these serious allegations of bullying and threat tactics.
Who actually benefits from the loss of an experienced elected official, selected to replace Commissioner Lee? Who suffers due to the loss of multiple seats? Where is the public in this process? 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?
Again, the Forward Times has a responsibility to put the community before an interested candidate, and it is imperative that we never allow the community to be misinformed or misguided when it comes to important issues that impact the African American community.
The Forward Times will continue to follow the process concerning the replacement of El Franco Lee and monitor any new developments that impact the most powerful position in Texas.