Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Harris County commissioner vacancy *update*

Update: El Franco Lee's political coffers were overflowing with cash at the time of his death.

When Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee died unexpectedly Sunday, he left friends and allies in mourning, political hopefuls jockeying for his job and an uncommonly large campaign war chest of nearly $4 million.

What happens to that sum -- which far outstrips the campaign cash held by all of his fellow commissioners combined -- remains an open question.

All elected officials are required to disburse their political reserves after leaving office, but campaign finance experts said the present situation is unusual given the extent of Lee's holdings, which his campaign treasurer now is tasked with distributing.

"This much money I've not seen before," Austin campaign finance lawyer Buck Wood said. Andrew Wheat, research director for the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, agreed.

"I can't remember this question coming up," Wheat said. "That's an extraordinary amount of money for a county commissioner to be sitting on."

We know four million bucks is chickenfeed for statewides and federal candidates these days, but unprecedented in a county official who rarely had competition.

He did not face a serious challenger in at least the last 20 years, but, nonetheless, accumulated a steady stream of money in his campaign account.

The commissioner took in an average of $250,000 per year from 2008 through 2014, the full years for which electronic finance reports are available, and spent an average of $200,000. That left Lee, the county's first African American commissioner, with $3.9 million in the bank as of last June.

You can understand now why everybody wants his job.

State law dictates that Lee's longtime friend and campaign treasurer, J. Kent Friedman, now must disseminate those leftover political funds to one or more of the following entities within the next six years: the Democratic Party, a candidate or political committee, a charity, a scholarship program at an institution of higher education, or the state treasury. He also may return money to Lee's donors.

Friedman said he has not considered what to do with the late commissioner's campaign account.
"I hadn't even thought about it until you asked the question," he said. "I haven't given it three seconds' worth of thought."

Wood noted that the executor of Lee's estate may have the right to replace the late commissioner's treasurer, but he could find no record of a case that clarifies the law regarding how the powers of a treasurer could be terminated or altered after a candidate's death.

"It's an unresolved issue," Wood said.

Original post: Check the comments here and then read this:

Within hours of longtime Commissioner El Franco Lee's sudden death Sunday, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett received calls from three people vying for his seat.

Emmett, who alone must appoint a temporary successor, said he will not consider these three or five others who by day's end expressed their interest.

"There's such a thing as dignity," Emmett said on Monday.

That's what David in the comments of Sunday's post suggested, and I conceded.

Replacing Lee will be a two-step process which is complicated by where it falls in the election cycle. State law dictates when a sudden vacancy occurs, the county judge must pick a commissioner to complete the term, which in Lee's case is Jan. 1, 2017.

When the term ends, the commissioner's job comes up for election. However, at this point it's too late for candidates to submit their names for the March primary, and there is no Republican running for the seat.

After the primary, sometime in June, Democratic party officials for Precinct 1 will choose a replacement candidate for Lee. The candidate the party chooses will run unopposed in November.

Jill in the comments goes a little further, and the Chron article confirms.

Emmett said he hoped to announce a short-term appointee to the job in three weeks' time, when he returns from a previously scheduled vacation. Emmett, a centrist Republican, sought input Monday morning from Lee's staff to find an African-American Democrat for the job equipped to proceed with projects already underway. He said he wanted the individual to be in place in time to participate in the fiscal year budget process.

Lane Lewis, the Democratic Party chair for Harris County, will oversee part two of this process and believes it is in Emmett's best interest to appoint a caretaker who is ineligible to run or who would choose not to run instead of picking a viable candidate for the November balloting.

"I don't think he's interested in trying to be kingmaker; he's interested in having an honorable, respectable placeholder who can do the job while the process takes place over the next six to eight months," Lewis said.

So it will be the end of January before we know the immediate replacement, and sometime in the summer when the Democrats choose the person who will ultimately replace Lee.  As a commissioner, that is.  As a person, there's no replacing him.

While the succession process begins taking shape, staff at the Precinct 1 office gathered Monday at their first briefing without their boss at the head of the table, peppering the conversation with wry comments and insights.

Interactions among staffers at the offices were quiet, mostly wordless exchanges, punctuated by hugs, tears and a stream of calls from employees and constituents expressing condolences. The 285 precinct staffers sought to focus on getting back to work and "preserving Lee's legacy," said Judy Springer, the policy and fiscal services manager for the precinct.

"It's hard because we didn't lose a boss, we lost a friend," she said.

Very large shoes to fill.


joseph m said...

I'm ineligible and I won't run.

I'd do it just to see if a ban the box or paid leave ordinance could pass.

Gadfly said...

Dignity don't mean much next to 4 million smackers, does it?