The Change I Almost Couldn't Believe In - Pacific Standard

The Change I Almost Couldn't Believe In

If the politicians in a sharp-elbowed place like Houston can work across party lines, why can't yours?
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I grew up in Chicago, where the Cubs, Sox, Bulls, Bears and Daleys were and are leading spectator attractions. I worked for years in San Francisco, which puts on a savage election almost every time the fog rolls in. My in-laws live in New Orleans, where everything is political, and nothing can be properly understood unless you know the history of it back to Earl Long, or maybe even Huey.

Still, for the eight years when I lived and reported there, I was absolutely certain the best place to watch politics in America was Houston, particularly as it was practiced at the county courthouse. The Harris County government has a multibillion-dollar budget and control over law enforcement, transportation, health care and social services for a population of millions. The county made for good politics-watching, however, not because people were generally aware of its power and reach, but because most people hardly even knew county government existed, and the officials who ran the show felt free to engage in astonishing displays of arrogance.

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As late as 1965, Houston was the kind of place where the top county executive (known as the county judge, even though he does not really do any judging) could persuade the government to build the first domed stadium in the land, aka the Astrodome — and to put his own private living quarters inside it, right above the right-field seats. The judge's Astrodome "apartment" included a barbershop, bowling alley and a bar. Elvis and Sinatra supposedly dropped in. (Not simultaneously.)

When I was reporting in Houston from the mid-1980s to the early '90s, another county judge made himself semi-famous by blithely acknowledging that of course he voted to give public contracts to friends who contributed to his campaign — they just had to be qualified friends. He seemed to suffer no political repercussions whatever. (The judge was subsequently indicted for failing to report that he'd used $195,000 in campaign funds to buy a dive boat for his son. But after he acknowledged bad judgment, the indictments were dismissed, he did not run for re-election and a couple of years later, he was elected a state senator.)

In this era, the county judge and county attorney despised one another; the county attorney and district attorney were only slightly less estranged; and county commissioners were unassailable potentates when they weren't vindictive despots. Republicans predominated, and conservative officeholders boldly one-upped one another in their proposals for dealing harshly with the enemies of society.

At the apotheosis of the competition, an elected Republican criminal court judge agreed to give a sexual assault defendant probation if he would allow himself to be castrated, a proposition the defendant agreed to, possibly because he had an IQ of 69. In the end, the deal fell apart, but only, according to one published report, because a doctor who would neuter a human as part of a plea bargain could not be found.

A decade and a half later, Houston is in some ways unchanged. When I visited in June, I was reminded of the good-old days by 100-degree temperatures and air that smelled like a snuffed candle. But for a long time, Houston has been more cosmopolitan and livable than outsiders give it credit for, and today, as the country's fourth-largest city, it's a true economic powerhouse, a real racial melting pot, a sports mecca, even a cultural center. This hasn't been a cow town in many a decade.

The politics are different now, too, even at the county level — or, perhaps, especially at the county.

It's a development that I wouldn't believe had I not seen and heard it myself: In a government once ruled by outlandish power politics, county officials are working together on matters of public interest — from jail overcrowding to improved mental health care to ethics enforcement — that could almost be seen as a common reform agenda. The change shouldn't be overstated. "Yes, We Can" hasn't become the new county motto. In fact, if the Obama revolution plays into the new political tone in Harris County, it does so only tangentially. This is still, after all, Texas, where liberals are a threatened, if not endangered, species.

Just the same, the question hangs there like the haze on a summer afternoon in Houston: Why is it that local officials in a contentious place like Harris County can cooperate across party lines, but the people we send to Washington can't? The answer is complicated and in some regards specific to Texas, a place I'm always wary of holding up as an example of good governance. Even so, something is happening down on Buffalo Bayou that you might want to ask your mayor to take a look at. Maybe even your congressman.

Back in my newspapering days, Pat Lykos was a state district judge with her own sense of public drama. In what might be a case of understatement, the Houston Chronicle says she "was famously prickly on the bench, clashing frequently with fellow judges, the district attorney, witnesses, prosecutors, defense lawyers and the news media. Some of her rulings alarmed civil liberties advocates."

Today, Lykos is Harris County's district attorney, a Republican elected against the Obama trend to clean up a sordid mess left by another Republican, former District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal. (For those interested in the sordid, here's how talented Houston Chronicle columnist Rick Casey described it: "[Rosenthal's] fall came when e-mails became public showing an at-least flirtatious relationship with his secretary, the use of the county's computer system to recruit his staff to help with his re-election campaign, and the passing on of obscene and racist 'jokes.' Then there was the matter of his flouting the law by erasing thousands of other e-mails in defiance of a direct order by a federal judge to produce them in a lawsuit against the county.")

Because of her conservative reputation, I expected Lykos to start our interview with fire-breathing, lock-'em-up rhetoric. What I got instead was a short, smart, intense woman who spoke in an erudite way about the rule of law as the foundation of society, a Civics 101 lesson that came complete with references to Athens, Rome and Socrates.

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Lykos subsequently served up quick agreement with the premise I put forward: It's a new day of cooperation at the county. The reason for the change in tone, she says, centers on the depth and variety of experience of the participants. Lykos has been a police officer, a criminal court judge, a top adviser to two different county judges and, now, a district attorney. County Attorney Vince Ryan, Sheriff Adrian Garcia and County Judge Ed Emmett also have varied backgrounds. "The planets are all aligned," she says. "See, we have no baggage. We all know each other and have respect for one another."

Lykos has gotten a lot of press in her first six months in office, in part because she's good copy — she's an unreformed smoker who drives a white Cadillac and knows how to talk reporter-ese — and in part because she seems to have taken her campaign pledge to reform the DA's office seriously. Since taking office, she's instituted a deferral program for juveniles who've been charged with minor first offenses; created a program to help minor offenders with mental health problems get counseling rather than jail sentences; created a post-conviction review section to investigate "credible claims of innocence;" and called for a new regional crime lab, independent of police control.

In the nail-'em-and-jail-'em-and-execute-'em-if-we-can culture that was the Harris County District Attorney's Office for decades, some of Lykos' initiatives would likely have been seen as heresy. Lykos says they're just attempts to solve problems that have stewed, untended, for years. "Everything we're doing is research-based, evidence-based. ... We can't keep doing the same things over and over again," she says.

To be sure, Lykos — who describes herself as "a Goldwater and Reagan Republican" — has a political advantage unavailable to a liberal reformer. Her years in the judiciary so established her conservative bona fides that it would be all but impossible for a Republican challenger to make a case that she's a soft-on-crime liberal. She may call the incarceration of thousands of mentally ill people on any given day in Harris County jails "a state-sponsored crime against humanity." But once that system is changed, so minor offenders with mental illness are transferred to more appropriate facilities, Lykos intends to fill the newly empty jail cells with gang members, robbers, car thieves, members of organized crime — the criminals whom she calls, in a sudden growl of throaty anger, "predators."

Whether she's a reformer, a traditional Republican conservative, a canny politician hoping to attract at least some Democratic votes in a county that went for Obama, or all of the above, it's clear that Lykos wants cooperation in the public interest to become part of her own political persona. It's just as clear that she's absolutely fine with saying, right out loud, that she respects the new Democratic county attorney. "I think that we can be an exemplar, that we can set a new paradigm," Lykos says, "that instead of petty politics, you have sincere people who want to do good."

This is Harris County?

A little more than 20 years ago, I knew Vince Ryan as the first assistant county attorney, second in command to a Democratic county attorney who was at war with the Republican county judge and wary of the Republican district attorney. Some Republicans viewed Ryan as a hyper-crafty Democratic operative; I suspect they were just afraid of his intelligence and principle.

Now, after stints on the City Council and the Panama Canal Commission, and years in private practice, Ryan is back at the courthouse as the Harris County attorney, a Democrat elected with the Obama trend to clean up a sordid mess involving a lawsuit over a botched raid by sheriff's deputies. (For those interested in more of the sordid, here's how the Chronicle's Casey put it: "The Ibarras were the two brothers who suffered abuse and arrest for taking perfectly legal photographs from their yard of a raid by sheriff's deputies next door. [The county] eventually settled the lawsuit with the trial under way, paying $1.7 million to the brothers, $1.4 million to their lawyer, and so-far untold hundreds of thousands more to various lawyers representing the county, the sheriff and the deputies. The total cost to taxpayers is likely well more than $4 million." Oh, yeah. Those e-mails that got the former DA in trouble were unearthed during discovery for the Ibarra lawsuit.)

Like Lykos, Ryan ran for office on a reform agenda, saying the county attorney should be "a watchdog, not a lapdog" and a key player in a system of checks and balances long missing from county government. When I met him in his corner office overlooking downtown Houston, I expected Ryan to happily agree that Obama-style cooperation across party lines was the new order of the day. But Ryan disputed the notion that the Obama phenomenon has been a major factor at the courthouse. "If there's an advantage to the Age of Obama, he's talking about things that have the right so outraged, they can't think about the local level," Ryan said.

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Instead, Ryan attributed cooperation at the county to the experience levels of the officials involved and to their basic commitments to public, rather than special or personal, interests. Obviously, Ryan said, he and Lykos have widely divergent political philosophies. And he wasn't certain she'd really try to carry out the reforms she talked about during the 2008 campaign. After six months of working with her, though, Ryan says he believes she's for real. "I'm convinced that Pat Lykos is coming from that direction. She wants to make the world better," Ryan said.

Overcrowding in the county jail system — which now holds about 12,000 inmates, at least a couple of thousand more than capacity — may be the most pressing of the issues that Ryan, Lykos and Harris County face. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report that found the jails provide disturbingly inadequate medical and mental health care. Much of the report is a litany of depressing instances in which people with treatable illnesses die needless, awful deaths.

In the past, jail overcrowding was exacerbated by judicial and prosecutorial policies that focused on maximizing jail and prison sentences, and playing to conservative voters. Ryan's office has worked hard, behind the scenes, on jail reform, but Ryan says Lykos has been instrumental in a variety of reform proposals, including changes in policy in regard to inmates with mental illness. Because they come from both Democratic and Republican public attorneys, their recommendations on reducing the jail population have gained traction with the county judge, county commissioners and other officials who must be part of any solution to the problem. "If I were the only one advocating it, it wouldn't go anywhere," Ryan said.

Similarly, he said, efforts to check unethical behavior by county employees are greatly enhanced when a Republican DA and Democratic county attorney work in concert. And they seem to nowadays, in no small part because after he took office in January, Ryan not only kept Lykos' brother, Nick Lykos, in the county attorney's office but made him the office's inspector general. And as one county official noted, when the district attorney's Republican brother has the title inspector general in a Democratic County Attorney's Office and tells a county employee that procedures need to be changed to comply with the law, there is seldom need for a second conversation.

Toward the end of our talk, Ryan described being county attorney in a glowing way that might have made me laugh, and not in a glowing way, 20 years ago. "It's just a great place to try to make the world a better place," he said.

Lest Molly Ivins spin eternally in her grave, let me say that I know all is not sweetness in Harris County and that Texas politics is often wacky and vicious simultaneously. As I wrote this, a Harris County commissioner was under investigation for suspicious dealings with campaign contributions, and the 2010 Texas governor's race had already brought up the silly idea of secession and set Republican incumbent Rick Perry and GOP U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison at each other's throats.

All the same, I spoke with enough people who (as they say in Texas) have no dog in the hunt to become convinced that something actually has changed in Harris County government, and that the change came about not for one, but for many reasons, some of which might have meaning in other political locales.

For one thing, even in Texas, the Obama phenomenon has revealed shifting demographics that work against Republican dominance. A recent Census Bureau estimate says Harris County is about 38 percent Hispanic and more than 18 percent African American. Richard Murray, a University of Houston professor, and perhaps the region's most respected political analyst, says the increased black turnout accompanying the Obama candidacy and the increasing Hispanic population means "we're probably in the process of seeing the county flip from Republican to Democrat."

To be elected countywide, it seems, Republicans will have to attract at least some minority votes. And because Lykos beat her Democratic opponent by less than 5,000 votes out of more than 1.1 million cast, she may be "sensitive" to demographic changes and the need to attract voters beyond a conservative Republican base, Murray says.

These kinds of demographic shifts may not immediately switch Texas or other red states into the Democratic column, but they may alter the politics of cities and college towns that Obama carried across the south. The urban Republicans who survive in a new demographic world may be those who moderate their conservatism — or cooperate with Democrats.

But that demographic/political rationale is clearly only a part — and perhaps not the largest part — of the reason that Harris County politics seems more bipartisan and public-spirited nowadays. In the wake of scandal in county law enforcement, Harris County voters didn't just shrug incumbents back into office. They chose change, electing a new county attorney, district attorney and sheriff — but they didn't elect firebrand newcomers, or go only with one political party. They chose people who had long service in several positions in the public sector — people who had demonstrated a dedication to public service and the ability to make reasonable accommodations in the service of problem solving.

Kim Ogg is an attorney who has pretty much seen it all it the world of Houston and Texas politics, from both sides of the political divide. Her father is longtime state Rep. and Sen. Jack Ogg, a conservative Democrat. But she's been an assistant district attorney when that office was headed by a Republican, and she ran as a Republican for a district court seat in 1996. During the 1990s, she was the gang task force director for the city of Houston, where she worked with a police officer named Adrian Garcia — who was elected last year as the new Democratic county sheriff.

Ogg was hired by the county attorney's office to help resolve the constitutional violations in the Harris County jails. I called her early in July to ask about the situation; she was quick to attribute the cooperation at the county to an unusual alignment of political stars that put people with broad institutional knowledge and good intentions in position to address problems that the county government has long ignored. "You've got old people in new jobs, and they've got perspective because of their histories," Ogg says, quickly explaining that she wasn't referring to "old" in the chronological sense. As she searches for a way to describe the new politics of Harris County, I ask if she's been surprised by what she's seen.

"Is it surprising to me?" she asks, pondering for a bit, before coming up with the word she's been looking for. "It's refreshing to me."

Miller-McCune welcomes letters to the editor, sent via e-mail to theeditor@miller-mccune.com; via the comment sections of our Web site, Miller-McCune.com; or by standard mail to The Editor, 804 Anacapa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.

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