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Judge Denise Pratt
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Judge Denise Pratt

Early voting for the March primaries will begin in just a month and, as usual, all eyes will be on top-ballot races with multiple viable candidates. But one far less noticeable Harris County vote may help answer a perennial political question: Does bad press make a difference in down-ballot races?

At issue is Denise Pratt, the judge for the 311th Family District Court. She faces four Republican challengers in the primary. And with good reason: She’s been mired in scandal since last October and a fresh round of allegations has just emerged. But unlike so many scandals, the accusations against Pratt have nothing to do with slush funds, tax fraud, or “hiking the Appalachian Trail.” Rather, they’re about how she does her job, if she’s negligent, whether she broke the law to cover it up.

The Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, and even local conservative bloggers have reported the debacle diligently. Defenses and explanations offered by Pratt’s lawyer have ranged from weak to nonsensical. But should Pratt win the primary, she’s likely to keep her judgeship thanks to straight-ticket voting. So if persistent, apparently well earned bad press is going to make a difference, it’ll be on March 4th.

Here’s the Denise Pratt story, also known as How to Lose Friends and Alienate Lawyers.

Pratt started strong. An experienced family law attorney, she garnered a Chronicle endorsement and beat four other candidates in the 2010 primary without a runoff. Then she won election by 10 points. But for reasons unknown, Judge Pratt fell behind. She started issuing rulings long after their hearings and letting cases pile up that needed only a signature. In May of last year, the 14th Court of Appeals reprimanded Pratt for “unreasonable” delays and ordered her to rule on a case she’d heard 10 months before, which she did.

Then the intrigue began. In June 2013, just after the appeals court slapped Pratt’s wrist, a man whose divorce case Pratt heard three months earlier finally got his ruling. His hearing had been March 25th. The ruling was dated March 25th. But the man didn’t receive notice until June. This was, he said, despite contacting Pratt’s office repeatedly and being told he’d get the ruling as soon as it was ready.

Greg Enos, a local family law attorney, was suspicious. Enos suspected Pratt had gotten in trouble, fished out an overdue case and backdated the ruling. He wrote as much in his watchdog blog, “The Mongoose,” and asked other lawyers who suspected judicial shenanigans to contact him.

They did. When Enos filed a criminal complaint against Pratt in October, he cited six cases and alleged rampant backdating. In November, 32 Houston-area family law attorneys signed a letter calling for Pratt to step down. Then the Houston Bar Association’s biennial judicial evaluations savaged her. Seventy six percent of respondents said Pratt was “poor” at following the law; 81 percent said she was bad at issuing timely rulings; 83 percent reporting she wasted attorney time; and 79 percent rating her poor at working hard and being prepared. In all, 57 percent of respondents gave her the lowest of five possible overall ranks.

But Pratt wasn’t merely unpopular. Enos’ complaint sparked an investigation by the Harris County district clerk, during which Pratt’s lead clerk, a 25-year veteran, pleaded the Fifth and resigned. Pratt heard one case in January, issued a ruling in May, and dated the ruling a day before the two-day trial actually ended.

The district attorney empaneled a grand jury to investigate whether the judge tampered with court records. Though in December the grand jury declined to indict Pratt, visiting judges did grant eight lawyers’ requests to have her removed from their cases.

And her time on the un-fun side of the bench may not be over. On Thursday, Enos filed another complaint against Pratt, this time citing what the Chronicle adorably calls a “surprise docket purge” of more than 700 cases in a month.

For obvious reasons, if a judge schedules a hearing he or she has to give the affected lawyers notice. Failure to appear can be grounds for dismissal. But according to Enos and several other lawyers, Judge Pratt dismissed hundreds of cases without warning attorneys to show up.  Most of the purged cases were signed on Dec. 30 and 31, when the district clerk’s office told the Chronicle no dismissal dockets were scheduled.

It’s hard to see how Pratt thought this would go well. Her lawyer, Terry Yates, has yet to pitch a convincing explanation for any apparent improprieties, though he’s made up for in quantity what his explanations lack in quality. Among the justifications offered are:

  • Lawyers didn’t receive notice because of the new electronic filing system in the District Clerk’s office, which that office’s spokesperson told the Chronicle “has nothing to do with the mailing of notices.”
  • Lawyers with dismissed cases have “just got to file a motion to reinstate…so it’s really no big deal,” Yates said to the Chronicle.
  • Purging cases at the end of the year is normal, though in December Pratt dismissed at least 561 and the eight other family court judges dismissed between 28 and 121.
  • Pratt has the most pending cases of any family court—more than 3,000—which Yates told the Chronicle is “really a legislative issue to get more family courts here so the dockets are manageable.”
  • And of course, no litany of excuses would be complete without this old chestnut: The accusations against Pratt are, according to her email to GOP precinct chairs, all “rumors that are being spread by the Democrats and the liberal media.”

Even if all the criminal and more moustache-twirling allegations against Pratt are untrue, there’s no question that she issues tardy rulings, lets cases pile up, and is held in abysmal esteem by the lawyers with whom she works. All indicators suggest, in short, that she does a bad job. She’s also not a seasoned incumbent letting things slide; this is her first term. And she’s drawn four challengers in the primary.

One would think all this would doom her, but besides incumbency she has one advantage: While the local conservative press has turned against her, the Republican Party hasn’t withdrawn its endorsement. Thus, Pratt’s primary pits the media against the establishment.

It’s not Chris Christie-level drama, but for the hundreds of Houstonians whose divorces and child visitation rights hang in the balance, the quality of a single judge matters very much indeed. The question is, come March 4th, will that matter to the voters?

Texas DPS
https://www.facebook.com/TxDPS

Yesterday, the Houston Chronicle reported that the Texas driver’s license application asks drivers whether they’ve been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder. The question isn’t new—the Department of Public Safety has asked since the 1970s. Nor has it gone unnoticed; state Rep. Garnet Coleman has been trying to have it removed for the last few legislative sessions. But it’s an important story because, in several ways, it’s about what happens when government and reality collide. (Spoiler: reality loses.)

First, the question is overly broad. It asks, specifically, whether an applicant has in the last two years been diagnosed with, hospitalized for, or is currently receiving treatment for a psychiatric disorder. It doesn’t ask whether the disorder interferes with a person’s ability to safely drive, which is a component of another question about medical conditions in general. By asking separately about medical conditions and psychiatric conditions, the question implies that psychiatric illnesses are not medical, which is a funny distinction to make about a problem effectively treated by a wide array of drugs. And by including all psychiatric disorders in the question’s scope instead of conditions that might affect driving, it’s uselessly inclusive.

Have you ever felt grumpy from caffeine withdrawal? According to the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, that’s a diagnosable psychiatric problem. So are binge eating, sleepwalking and restless leg syndrome. Considering that a quarter of Americans will suffer a mental illness in a given year, the question assumes most drivers will lie.

Second, the question is illogical. A psychiatric condition that’s being treated will usually be less symptomatic than an untreated one. For greater relevance, the question would ask whether a driver has been diagnosed with but declined treatment for a disorder. Or better, it would ask if someone has a mental illness of which they’re unaware. While inquiring about that, Dateline Houston suggests the Department of Public Safety ask if an applicant texts while driving, tends to make terrible decisions, or has ever played Grand Theft Auto.

Third, the enforcement mechanism appears to rely on applicants to lie. Answering “yes” doesn’t disqualify a person, but it leads to more questions to determine whether someone’s psychiatric record should be examined by the Medical Advisory Board of the Department of State Health Services. That board comprises 13 doctors, none of whom are psychiatrists. Texas has about 18 million licensed drivers.

And yet, after all the questions about medical history, a shaded box reminds applicants, “False information could also lead to criminal charges with penalties of a fine up to $4,000.00 and/or jail.”

drug test

In August 2012, one Houston courtroom played host to a legal drama of Brockovichian proportions. During a routine probation hearing for a man who’d tested positive for illegal drugs, his lawyer, Lisa Andrews, put Harris County’s entire probation department on trial. She called most of the department as witnesses and submitted thousands of subpoenaed emails and documents showing that bad record keeping, human error and poor oversight had allowed test results to get mixed up, costing innocent people their freedom for drug use that never happened.

The judge was livid. She not only dismissed the case against Andrews’ client, but called for the probation department head to resign, which he did.

But some thought the resignation unnecessary. The department was overwhelmed, swamped with 25,000 drug tests a month, and while the crisis was certainly mismanaged—one reporter noted a months-old urine sample sitting at the back of a lukewarm refrigerator—the courts, not the probation department, created the problem.

That’s because forcing people to submit regular urine samples for drug testing isn’t standard for probation. It’s an extra condition, applied at the discretion of the judge, and Houston judges have been applying it. A 2005 report on Harris County from the Justice Management Institute noted that the previous decade had seen a threefold increase in the average number of probationers with extra conditions like urine testing.

So can a mess made by the courts be cleaned up by a new probation director?

Dr. Teresa May is going to try. Soon after her appointment last February, May hired a consultant who found that “many probationers had for years tested negative on hundreds of tests,” the Houston Chronicle reported. Continuing to demand samples from low-risk subjects like these contributed to the department’s heavy drug-testing load, which May has halved since March. Now she’s working with judges to develop a risk-assessment tool to standardize the assignment of extra conditions like urinalysis, substance-abuse programs and mental-health treatment. (Currently, the state evaluates all probationers, but it’s usually after their conditions have been set.)

In doing so, May is finally fulfilling recommendations the Justice Management Institute made to Harris County in 2005. Its report advised the courts to “develop cost-effective common policies concerning when drug testing should be ordered, for what types of drugs, how and by whom the tests should be conducted, what responses should be made to test results, and when (under what circumstances) the drastic step of revoking bond should be taken.”

Such standardization may seem obvious, but actually implementing it is real progress. Perhaps if these steps had been taken back when they were suggested, fewer innocent people would have gone back to jail.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker
http://www.houstontx.gov/mayor/
Houston Mayor Annise Parker

From the Department of Inevitability, the Harris County Republicans filed suit yesterday over Houston Mayor Annise Parker’s move to provide spousal benefits to same-sex partners of city employees who have been legally married in other states. District Judge Lisa Millard issued a temporary restraining order halting the policy until a hearing January 6th.

Dateline Houston speculates that it took the Harris County Republicans so long to sue (Parker made her announcement four weeks ago) because their chairman, Jared Woodfill, was working out the exact language to describe the badness of the change.

It’s “one of the most egregious acts by an elected official I’ve ever seen,” he told the Houston Chronicle, apparently up there with Watergate and the Iran-Contra affair. “They just decided to, unilaterally, as a lame duck, thumb their nose at the will of the people and just spit on the U.S. Constitution.”

Leaving aside the facts that 1) lame ducks are officials whose tenure is nearly over, while Mayor Parker, though in her last term, has just been re-elected by 30 points, and 2) ducks don’t have thumbs or noses, Woodfill’s claim that the Constitution forbids such an act is dubious at best.

Firstly, the part of the Defense of Marriage Act that prohibited federal recognition of gay marriages was struck down this year as a violation of the Fifth Amendment. (Who’s spitty now?) Secondly, the Texas National Guard yielded last month to Pentagon pressure and began offering same-sex spousal benefits. (Hippies.) Thirdly, Austin, Dallas, El Paso and Fort Worth already have policies like Houston’s, making it look a little less egregious.

City Attorney David Feldman told the Chronicle he expects the lawsuit to be thrown out because the Harris County Republicans “don’t appear to have any particular state to complain about this. Just being a taxpayer isn’t enough.”

All that aside, it’s not hard to see why the group is upset. In 2001, voters approved an amendment to the city charter that banned benefits for anyone but “legal spouses.” (That change, by the way, was spearheaded by Dave Wilson, the white man recently elected to be a Houston Community College trustee after leading voters to believe that he was black.) Since Texas refuses to recognize same-sex marriages from other states, the marriages aren’t legal here. But, citing the recent IRS decision to recognize married gay couples for tax purposes, even if they live in states banning gay marriage, Houston decided to do it anyway.

Mayor Parker, who is gay, will be unaffected by the change because she and her partner of 24 years are unmarried.

The StarChase GPS Launcher.
The StarChase GPS Launcher.

Historically, civil libertarians and law enforcement watchdogs have reacted to innovations in police technology with skepticism if not alarm. Last year, for example, the ACLU published a report blasting unfettered use of automatic license-plate readers in places like Grapevine, where surveillance equipment scanned more than 14,000 plates a day, and the city had no plans to delete the data.

But a couple of high-tech solutions being rolled out in Texas police departments are proving exceptions to the rule. That’s because in addition to fighting crime, they have the potential to make police encounters safer for innocent civilians, not just officers.

One of the most dangerous police activities is the high-speed chase. The largest analysis of police pursuits found that almost a quarter of pursuits resulted in an injury or property damage, and that one in five injury victims was a bystander. But restrictive chase policies frustrate officers who feel their judgment should be trusted.

The solution? Be like Batman. As of March, a dozen patrol cars in Austin have been fitted with grill-mounted air cannons that fire GPS darts at fleeing vehicles. Deployed by a pursuing officer via keypad, the darts stick to the back of a suspect’s car, letting police discontinue the chase while continuing to track a suspect’s movements in real time.

The Austin Police Department is an early adopter. The maker, StarChase, says a “large handful” of agencies have installed the technology, including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office and departments in Iowa and Florida. It’s not cheap—each system costs about $5,000 and includes two darts, which can be refurbished and reused for $250 each. But it may be less expensive than the status quo. Austin police reported 135 pursuits in 2012, of which 22 ended in crashes. One of those crashes killed a bystander. The department says if the program is successful, it will seek grants to put the system in every patrol car.

Though it’s less cutting-edge, Houston, too, is using technology to address a pernicious police problem: civilian complaints. Since last winter, nine officers at the Houston Police Department have worn different types of body cameras in the field to help evaluate models for potential use. HPD recently confirmed that it plans to add 100 cameras by next summer, an expansion that will cost an estimated $400,000 including equipment and data storage. Though pricey, Houston police Chief Charles McClelland says the cameras may save money by quickly resolving Internal Affairs investigations. “You don’t have to spend resources to investigate frivolous complaints,” McClelland told the Houston Chronicle. “Sometimes when people make complaints, and they see themselves on video, they drop the complaints.”

But potential savings aren’t why groups including the ACLU cautiously support such programs. An October report from the group called police cameras a “win-win,” saying that while the group generally takes a dim view of expanded surveillance, “on-body cameras are different because of their potential to serve as a check against the abuse of power by police officers.”

Of course, any technology can be abused. The ACLU’s endorsement is contingent on the adoption of strict policies ensuring privacy and preventing tampering, policies HPD says it’s still developing. But the fact that two large police departments in Texas are investing in new ways to ease officer-citizen conflicts looks a lot like progress.

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March in favor of a non-discrimination ordinance outside San Antonio City Council meeting.
Forrest Wilder
A September march in favor of San Antonio's non-discrimination ordinance.

Austin may have a reputation for being Texas’ most gay-friendly town, but Houston’s catching up.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker announced today that the city will start offering employment benefits like health insurance to same-sex spouses of city employees who were legally married in other states. In 2001, voters approved a city charter amendment that appears to prohibit exactly that, but Parker says because it permits benefits for “legal spouses,” then legal gay spouses should be included. (Parker, who is gay, will be unaffected by the change since she and her partner of 24 years are unmarried.)

A statement from the mayor’s office appears to claim both that the city is still legally obeying the charter amendment—the city will not extend benefits to domestic partners, for example, only to full spouses—and that the charter amendment is unlawfully discriminatory. It explained, “After a careful review of recent case law, the city legal department believes continued application of the charter amendment so as to deny same-sex spousal benefits would be unlawful because it treats employees differently on the basis of sexual orientation.”

The statement cited the August IRS decision recognizing married same-sex couples for federal tax purposes even if the couples reside in states where their marriage is not recognized. Austin, Dallas, El Paso and Fort Worth already have such policies, as does San Antonio, the recent site of an ugly squabble over whether to extend the city’s non-discrimination policy to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

It’s the second big leap forward for gay rights in Houston in as many weeks. Last Thursday, the Harris County Sheriff’s announced new policies intended to prevent sexual assault and harassment at the county jail. They include adding sexual orientation and gender orientation to the characteristics protected against discrimination and requiring new training on “updated zero-tolerance rules” about sexual abuse, harassment, improper contact and failure to report violations, according to a statement.

More radically, jail staff are now expected to consider gender identity, not merely anatomy, when deciding whether to house inmates with men or women. They’re also director to address inmates by either their chosen name or last name only, and to “follow common sense rules about whether an inmate should be searched by a male or female staffer.”

“Harris County courts will continue to mete out tough justice,” said Sheriff Adrian Garcia in the statement. “But being tough only works the right way when it is accompanied by values such as safety, fairness and dignity.”

Dignity in Houston looks to be coming along.

DaveYMCA-1
Dave Wilson

On Friday, Houston news station KHOU reported on the surprising election of Dave Wilson, a white anti-gay activist who beat a 24-year incumbent in a heavily Democratic and African-American district at least in part by pretending to be black. That story has blown up, but what few outlets are noting is that Wilson is a longtime and, heretofore, unsuccessful foe of the college system he has just joined.

During his run for District II trustee of the Houston Community College System, Wilson’s campaign materials never showed his face. Instead, they featured black families beside the words, “Please vote for our friend and neighbor Dave Wilson.” One mailer crowed, “Endorsed by Ron Wilson,” suggesting the support of a former state representative who is African American. But actually the endorsement came from Wilson’s cousin Ron, who lives in Iowa.

Wilson, an electrician known locally for nuisance lawsuits and homophobia, doesn’t deny his intent to mislead. “Every time a politician talks, he’s out there deceiving voters,” Wilson told KHOU.

But besides being non-representative of his district politically and racially, Wilson joins the ranks of conservative neophytes elected to political bodies they openly despise. At a tea party event in October of last year, Wilson delivered a 76-slide presentation on why voters should reject the $425 million bond proposal to fund HCC, the gist of which was that enrollment was down and money is expensive. Despite his heroic PowerPoint, that bond passed. In 2011, Wilson sued the HCC trustees to prevent the purchase of land Wilson claimed was overpriced. The suit was summarily dismissed with prejudice and Wilson had to pay court costs.

Most of Wilson’s 20 years of relapsing-remitting political activity in Houston has gone like that. But he has had one other taste of victory. Before turning his eye on HCC, Wilson fought homosexuality. In 2001, he gathered enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot denying benefits to same-sex partners of city employees. That referendum passed. He followed up by running for mayor on an anti-gay platform, sending out tens of thousands of mailers saying Annise Parker, who is gay, should not be mayor because “homosexual behavior leads to extinction.”

In 2009, Wilson’s homophobia took a pitying stance. In one flier, he said, “I have nothing but compassion, respect, and sensitivity toward those trapped in homosexual behavior.” But by the time Parker won a second term, Wilson had gotten uglier. A capture of campaign website from December of 2011 features a Bible verse from Romans over an unsigned cartoon of Parker high-fiving Jerry Sandusky while saying, “You’re hired!”

The electorate that, perhaps inadvertently, elected Wilson last week also granted Parker a third mayoral term.

Wilson hinted at his new campaign strategy during his last failed run. Perhaps sensing that gay-bashing had lost its value as an electoral tool, Wilson released a statement two days before the 2011 election stating that he was not in the Ku Klux Klan, that Parker’s camp had spread a rumor to that effect, and that he had been a member of the NAACP for several years.

How much Wilson’s racial subterfuge helped him in last week’s election is unknown. The HCC system has been plagued by poor performance, and other trustees were forced into runoffs. But the effect could have been tiny and still decisive. Wilson beat incumbent Bruce Austin by only 26 votes in a race with more than 11,000 cast. Austin has asked for a recount, but with electronic voting, a reversal seems unlikely. An HCC trustee term is six years.

gavel

How much is a competent defense attorney worth? If you’re the defendant, very much indeed. But how much is it worth if you’re not on trial—and you’re the one footing the bill?

That’s the question underlying a new study of the Harris County Public Defender program. Harris County was the last major urban county in the U.S. to get a public-defender program, which in 2011 started handling a small fraction of the county’s 70,000 indigent defense cases a year. The rest are still dealt with the old way: assigned to a rotating cast of Houston attorneys who are paid little per case, and whose average caseload far exceeds recommended maximums for effective counsel.

Comparing results between the public defender and traditionally appointed counsel doesn’t just make the former look good—it makes the latter look terrible.

The study found that felony public defender clients were acquitted three times as often as those with assigned counsel. Misdemeanor public defender clients with mental illness saw their cases dismissed five times as often, and both felony and misdemeanor defendants represented by public defenders were more likely to have their cases taken to trial than end in a plea deal.

These results aren’t mysterious. The study’s authors at the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a national nonprofit with an office in Austin, chalk them up to time and money. The Harris County Public Defender program is staffed by experienced lawyers who are paid a salary and prevented from taking cases in excess of national standards. Assigned lawyers in Harris County are paid per docket, and significantly less than in other urban counties in Texas. Nothing prevents them from taking on more clients than they can effectively defend.

For example, in 2012, almost half the indigent felony defendants in Harris County were represented by lawyers carrying more than the nationally recommended standard of 150 felony cases per year. And while the standard for misdemeanors is 400 cases a year, the top 10 percent of assigned attorneys in Harris County took on an average of 632 cases each. That may be because the county pays an average of $84 per misdemeanor case—little more than half of what Travis and Dallas counties pay.

The additional time Harris County public defender lawyers spend on each case gets better results, but it requires more money. For misdemeanor cases, the public defenders cost the county almost eight times as much as assigned counsel; in juvenile cases, they cost nine times as much. Felony public defender cases averaged about 1.7 times the cost of assigned counsel, in part because of issues of scale. (Public defenders took on more than half the county’s appellate cases in 2012, and did so, on average, more cheaply than assigned counsel.) But the public defender program is handling only 4 to 8 percent of the county’s misdemeanor, juvenile and felony cases. And while expanding the program will bring per-case costs down, the public defender program may never be as cheap as the assigned counsel system.

Harris County received grants to start its public-defender program, but those will end in October 2014. The county then will have to choose whether to pay rock-bottom prices, or pay for better results for people who’ve hit rock bottom.

vote

Houston voters last night decided to keep Mayor Annise Parker and to destroy the Astrodome. While those were the headline votes, the more interesting news came further down the ballot.

Parker, the city’s first openly gay mayor, was elected to a third term with relative ease, capturing 57 percent of the vote despite a field of nine candidates. Parker had the advantage of a strong city economy and an electorate kind to incumbents; the last four Houston mayors have served at least three terms, the current limit.

Parker’s main challenger, Ben Hall, took just 28 percent. Hall brought a formidable personal fortune to his campaign, but also a history of IRS trouble, much of it recent. That probably would have been enough, but Hall wasn’t helped by a ham-fisted media strategy, such as holding a press conference about crime rates at the site of a recent murder. Then, when the Houston Chronicle refused Halls’ request to bring outside media to attend its traditional candidate screenings, Hall cancelled 15 minutes before the event and released a statement calling the Chronicle a “megaphone for the interests of Ms. Parker and her cronies.” Bad form all around.

While all the statewide propositions passed, Harris County split the vote on two hotly debated propositions of its own. Prop 2, which lost with 47 percent, sought to issue $217 million in bonds to turn the disused but iconic Astrodome into an event and exhibition center. Early results predicted the defeat, but Twitter was still abuzz for hours with locals mourning the outcome, sharing pictures and stories of the Dome, and cursing Houston’s habit of choosing destruction over renovation.

Prop 1, to spend $70 million on a new joint inmate-processing center, passed by only 456 votes out of more than 224,000 cast. The center will be built across the street from the Harris County Jail and handle all bookings for both city and county, which advocates say will speed the process for all involved and allow more systematic application of programs providing mental health, substance abuse, and housing assistance. Critics point out that it’s a jail, that overcrowding should be solved by policy changes rather than new spending, and that the only reason it’s got a long name and so many bells and whistles is that voters rejected similar proposals in 2007 and 2009.

As expected, Houston City Council District A incumbent and certified character Helena Brown was forced into a runoff with Brenda Stardig, whom she defeated in a runoff two years ago. Brown took 38 percent of the vote, while Stardig had 29. Newcomer Mike Knox, a former police officer, got an impressive 20 percent. Knox has been critical of Brown since long before he became a candidate and seems likely to throw his support behind Stardig, suggesting Brown’s days as Houston’s watchdog against U.N. power grabs are numbered. Sad, really.

Speaking of power grabs, a controversial proposition out of Pasadena, in southeast Harris County, appears to have passed by just 87 votes. Prop 1 will make two of the city’s eight single-member districts at-large, a move critics say is intended to dilute minority voting power in the increasingly Hispanic north side. The Justice Department shot down a similar scheme there last year, but without the Voting Rights Act’s pre-clearance requirement—scuttled by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year—it was promptly revived. And now it has passed.

Helena Brown

Over the past few weeks, Ted Cruz has inflamed the national imagination with either presidential or revenge fantasies, depending on whom you ask and whether they work at NASA. But with the shutdown over (for now) and the Republican Party’s approval numbers hovering just above syphilis, political insiders who have a real problem living in the moment are wondering what’s next for Cruz. The infant-faced freshman senator has five years of job security left, which is probably more than some folks at NASA. But then Cruz will have to reapply for his position, and it’s anyone’s guess what his résumé will say under “Objective:”.

After all, it’s one thing to campaign on “NO.” It’s another to govern on it. But Helena Brown could have told Cruz that.

Remember Helena Brown? The freshman Houston city councilmember from District A rode from obscurity to (sort of) glory two years ago on a dry heave of tea party support, defeating the incumbent, Brenda Stardig, who’d had the audacity to vote for a drainage fee in her flood-prone district. Brown quickly made a name for herself not by accomplishing anything but by opposing things, often alone and to no effect. (Read the full Observer feature on her exploits here.)

During her first six months in office, Brown voiced the solitary “no” vote on the 16-person council more than 200 times, often for projects in other members’ districts. You can imagine how popular this made her. And she used these “no” moments to speechify, turning a vote against energy-efficient buildings into a stand for American sovereignty, and a vote against birth control for low-income women into an endorsement of teaching the Bible in schools. She also practiced one-woman obstructionism, often using parliamentary procedures to delay city business other members considered routine and necessary.

Sound familiar?

But while Cruz has years to learn whether this shtick delights voters as much in practice as it does in theory, Brown is about to find out. Houston’s municipal elections are November 5th and early voting starts Monday. All city councilmembers are up for reelection, but only Brown’s seat is considered at risk, and the ousted Brenda Stardig is back for a rematch. A third candidate is expected to force a runoff between Stardig and Brown, whose last showdown was also a runoff—with eight percent turnout.

The question, then, is whether District A likes what it got.

After all, Brown’s performance was no sneak attack. She ran on a simplistic government-bad, free-market-good platform and that’s how she governed. Brown accomplished little for her district and also had several small-time debacles during her first year: high staff turnover, accusations of altered time cards, and a bizarre, city-funded trip to Korea. But she never wavered in her opposition to the things she felt needed opposing, however little good it did. On Wednesday, for example, after failing in her solo bid to decrease the property tax rate, she abandoned the council meeting saying she needed to attend to constituent concerns elsewhere.

After Brown’s election in 2011, Houston blogger Charles Kuffner wondered presciently, “It will be interesting to see how CM-Elect Helena Brown reconciles her professed political beliefs with the sort of things that constituents tend to expect to get done.”

In a visit with the Houston Chronicle editorial board a year ago, outgoing U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison made a similar observation about Cruz. She warned that he was “going to have to choose early between being loyal to Jim DeMint and Mike Lee and the needs of the people of Texas.”

That dichotomy makes sense in the old world, where the government was considered a necessary evil instead of just evil. But in the new world, no such reconciliation may be necessary. If professing beliefs is what Brown’s base wanted—representing her constituency ideologically, rather than in negotiations over potholes and playgrounds—they got it. Cruz, too, has delivered what he promised, which was to stand up to Washington.

So will District A keep Brown? Ted Cruz might want to watch and find out.