Houston Clears Rape Kit Backlog. Will Other Cities Follow?

It was a promise that Mayor Annise Parker made to Houstonians in 2013.  And on February 23rd of this year, that promise was fulfilled, as the city of Houston has now officially tested its backlog of over 6,600 rape kits.  Here’s more from the AP press release (via ABC News)…

Evidence from more than 6,600 rape kits that went untested for years in Houston have turned up 850 hits in the FBI’s nationwide database of DNA profiles, marking a major step in the city’s $6 million effort to address the backlog, officials announced Monday.

Charges have been filed against 29 people, six of whom have been convicted, since the city launched an effort in 2013 to test 6,663 rape kits — some of which dated back nearly three decades. Testing was completed in the fall, and the results have now been uploaded to a database used by investigators nationwide to compare DNA profiles of possible suspects, Mayor Annise Parker said.

“This milestone is of special importance to rape survivors and their families and friends because it means their cases are receiving the attention they should have years ago,” Parker said at a news conference, where she joined local law enforcement officials to announce the results.

Police are continuing to review the matches to see if charges can be filed in other cases. In the cases where prosecutors have won convictions, defendants have received sentences ranging from 2 to 45 years in prison. One case was dismissed after the victim decided not to pursue the case.

Even with the extraordinary lag time in cases, hard work done by the city of Houston in this matter helps to grow the national database of harmful criminal activity, and has already helped to take some dangerous people off of our nation’s streets.  As Mayor Parker has proven, this is important work that needs to be done.

So the question for other cities remains… why hasn’t this been done yet??

While we can champion the hard work done in Houston, the rape kit backlog is still a major problem across the country.  As MSNBC host Ronan Farrow discovered in one of his last shows on the network, cities across the US are having a major problem getting these rape kits tested.  Without the DNA evidence, that means that thousands of criminals are walking the streets.

rapekit backlogs across US

(Photo credit:  Ronan Farrow Daily)

Washington and Austin both spend a lot of time arguing over border security. Everyone seems to be incredibly concerned about people coming to this country illegally.  But where is the concern for criminals that are already here??  Are the testing of these rape kits not just as important as what is going on at the Border?  It’s a question that needs to be asked, and at least for Houston, we now have an answer.

Off the Kuff has more.

New Projects Slow Houston’s ‘Auto-Centric’ Culture

In a recent and rather expansive article, USA Today offered its readers a definitive declaration about a certain Texas city…

You don’t know this Houston

They go on to justify the statement…

Over the past decade, the USA’s fourth-largest city has quietly become not just a powerhouse of intellect and culture in Texas, but a major player on the world stage. The Bayou City’s economic boom and urban renaissance have made Houston not just a magnet for travelers, but a permanent residence for many casual visitors.

Houstonians know what you’ve been thinking: urban sprawl, traffic woes, Big Oil and NASA. And though the city’s 2.3 million residents do have to navigate a swath of land roughly the size of New York City, Washington, D.C., Boston and Miami combined, they’ll gently tell you that you’re living in the past.

And on these points, they would certainly be correct.  Houston’s urban renaissance is happening so fast, even residents of the city can’t keep up with it.  That swath of land that we are all having to navigate often feels like a never-ending construction zone.  New high-rises, multi-family and home construction projects seem to start every week, and street closures/ road work are pretty much expected. If Houston is to be the nation’s next great city, it’s certainly wasting no time preparing for the big debut.

But one growing pain stands out above many others in this grand transfiguration… curbing the city’s pervasive car culture.  Houston has literally grown up in the personal automobile era, and has embraced that one form of transit far beyond any other.

City leaders are now wishing to dial that culture back with some landmark projects that emphasize other modes of transit.  A re-design of Allen Parkway will slow down vehicle traffic while adding traffic signals and better parking access to Buffalo Bayou.  Here’s more on the changes from Dug Begley of the Houston Chronicle

Partnering with the Downtown Houston Management District, city officials expect to start construction on a redesigned parkway after July 4, the date of the Freedom Over Texas celebration in Eleanor Tinsley Park just north of the parkway. The goal, downtown district president Bob Eury said, is to finish the work in time for Free Press Summer Fest in late May 2016.

[…]

The redesign shifts the eastbound and westbound lanes south and converts the existing westbound lanes into an access road and parking area.

Between the lanes, officials plan grassy medians planted with small trees, meant to calm traffic and bring back some sense of an enjoyable drive.

The addition multiple traffic signals and cross walks will provide safer access runners and cyclists, and (at least from the city’s viewpoint) a more pleasant experience for cars as well.

Already under way is another project for cyclists.  The Lamar Street Bikeway is Houston’s first ever two-way, on-street dedicated bike lane, and is set to open in Mid-March.  The lane includes new painted cross walks and traffic signals, providing for safer east-to-west trail connection through downtown.  Of course this Bikeway comes at the expense of a lane previously used for automobile traffic, so it will slow driver speed on Lamar.

Houston Bike Lane

The Downtown Bikeway is currently under construction, set to open next month.  

These changes may seem inconvenient to drivers in the short-term, but they are a most necessary adjustment for the future of the Bayou City.  As we continue to add more new residents, it becomes imperative for Houston and its surrounding environs to develop transit alternatives to the city’s “car only” culture.  Despite what some may believe, there are many more forms of transit than just bus or light rail.

Hopefully with two downtown projects happening in rapid succession, pedestrian and cycling improvements will be spurred in other areas of the city.  For drivers, the learning curve may be stiff, but that’s only because change is long overdue.  It’s time for the Bayou City to leave its auto-centric mentality in the past, and embrace a more cycle-friendly, pedestrian-friendly future.

 

Music Musings: John Wesley Work Jr.

Nashville Tennessee has earned the nickname “Music City, U.S.A.” for good reason.  And although for most Americans, the city is known primarily for being a hub of Country Music, Nashville houses a rich history for all kinds of music traditions.

Nashville’s Fisk University is well-known for being one of the nation’s most treasured Historically Black College/ Universities and for the internationally-acclaimed Fisk Jubilee Singers. One of America’s most storied choral ensembles, the group has provided a window into the history of Negro Spirituals for 144 years.  But even that preservation wouldn’t have been possible without the work of famed musician, composer, conductor and musicologist John Wesley Work Jr.

Born the son of a slave and coming of age during the Reconstruction era, John Wesley Work Jr. was surrounded by great music.  His father, the first John Wesley Work, was a singer and choir director.  So when he came to Fisk University as a freshman in 1890, he knew that his acceptance into Fisk’s music program was a great accomplishment in itself. Founded in 1871, the Fisk Jubilee singers had quickly become legendary, as their tour to raise funds for the university had already taken them to notable performances for President Ulysses S. Grant at the White House, and even Queen Victoria in England.

But Work Jr. brought the Fisk Jubilee singers to the world in a way not previously imagined, and one that we are thankful for today. In 1909 Work, now a Faculty member at Fisk and conductor of the group, landed upon critical music history when he agreed to a recording project for the Fisk quartet.  Here’s more on its significance, via Archeophone

The quartet of Work, first tenor, James Myers, second tenor, Noah Ryder, first bass, and Alfred King, second bass, made ten sides for Victor at the end of 1909, records that signaled a sea change in the kind of entertainment Americans could purchase for the home. As Tim Brooks points out in his recording notes accompanying Mr. Seroff’s essay, most of the recorded fare of the previous 20 years with a “jubilee” theme or African-American influence was parodic and often demeaning. With the Fisks, now black art, history, and culture were literally getting a fair hearing. Songs such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “There Is a Balm in Gilead” were well-known, and the Fisks give masterful performances, while “Little David, Play on Yo’ Harp / Shout All Over God’s Heaven,” “Roll Jordan Roll” and “The Great Campmeeting” became instant favorites that the group were called on to perform regularly in concert.

This recording, made by the sons of emancipated slaves, provides a critical link to the traditions of American Negro Spirituals.  Thanks to Work and the other singers, it and the recordings that followed stand as a witness to our musical past.  They’ve even found new relevance via digital restoration and platforms like YouTube.

Work’s time on the Fisk faculty was somewhat short… only 1909-1916.  In that time, he managed to not only commission a series of landmark recordings, but wrote an impressive document of the history being sung at the institution.  Work’s Folk Song of the American Negro stands today as one of the most important ethnomusicological contributions of the 20th Century for its exhaustive research of the various African-American music traditions from that time and before.  Without John Work Jr., much of this history could have been lost.

Last but certainly not least, John Wesley Work Jr. was a gifted composer in his own right.  Besides writing songs in the Negro Spiritual style and substantial choral arrangements, Work also composed some treasured art songs.  Soliloquy is a favorite of his for the tender poetry and ascendant vocal line, proving some of the best elements from Work’s musical fortitude.  Here is my performance of Soliloquy from 2010.

The contributions of John Wesley Work Jr. are not only a pillar of African-American music history, but continue to enrich the lives of all American music today.

Fisk Quartet

(The 1909 Fisk Jubilee Quartet, with John Wesley Work Jr. to the far right.  Photo credit:  Doug Seroff via NPR

Plano Throws Out Anti-ERO Petition. Could It Affect Houston’s Case??

As the battle over non-discrimination ordinances bounces across the state, all eyes must take a moment to focus on the city of Plano.  In what some have called a bold move, the city has thrown out the entirety of a petition against the Plano Equal Rights Ordinance.  Here’s the information directly from city press release

The City of Plano has determined that a recently circulated Equal Rights petition is invalid and will not move forward. Plano’s City Secretary was unable to certify the petition because it failed to meet State and local requirements for validation.

[…]

The petition contained false information regarding the Equal Rights Ordinance, claiming it regulates bathrooms. The ordinance does not regulate bathrooms. By making this false representation, the Equal Rights petition asked signees to repeal an ordinance that does not exist.

Texas Election Code requires petitions submitted in cities located in two counties to include a column for the signee’s county of voter registration. Since Plano is in two counties, that column was mandatory. However, none of the petition pages included it.

 

Plano officials even sent an email to petitioners during the collection period stating that such issues would be examined once the petitions were turned in.

As expected, the decision received swift rebuke from the petitioners, as Wendy Hundley of the Dallas Morning News reports…

 

“While we are shocked that the city has so little regard for its citizens, we remain committed to advancing religious liberty and challenging this ordinance that clearly violates laws protecting religious freedom,” said Jeff Mateer, general counsel for the Liberty Institute, a Plano-based nonprofit organization that defends religious liberty.

“It’s clear that Plano City Council has no interest in listening to the people,” Jonathan Saenz of Texas Values Action said in an email. “There is no question that enough signatures were submitted and the City Council does not want to be accountable to the people. These arrogant government officials have not heard the last from the people and the real voice of Plano.”

Both organizations supported the group that launched the petition drive, Plano Citizens United, and served as the group’s mouthpiece.

 

Despite their anger, the city of Plano has a strong case by which to invalidate the petitions.  Their actions could even have implications for the legal drama surrounding Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance.

In particular, the issue that Plano brings up about counties could also apply to the Houston case.  Per Chapter 277 of the Texas Election Code, any successful petition effort must contain the following information from signees…

 

Sec. 277.002. VALIDITY OF PETITION SIGNATURES. (a) For a petition signature to be valid, a petition must:

(1) contain in addition to the signature:

(A) the signer’s printed name;

(B) the signer’s:

(i) date of birth; or

(ii) voter registration number and, if the territory from which signatures must be obtained is situated in more than one county, the county of registration;

(C) the signer’s residence address; and

(D) the date of signing; and

(2) comply with any other applicable requirements prescribed by law.

(b) The signature is the only information that is required to appear on the petition in the signer’s own handwriting.

(c) The use of ditto marks or abbreviations does not invalidate a signature if the required information is reasonably ascertainable.

(d) The omission of the state from the signer’s residence address does not invalidate a signature unless the political subdivision from which the signature is obtained is situated in more than one state. The omission of the zip code from the address does not invalidate a signature.

 

One quick examination of the Houston petition reveals that it is missing some critical information from letter B.  Petitioners did not ask for the signee’s date of birth, instead opting for the voter registration number.  That’s fine to do, but when choosing the registration number option, they were also supposed to create a column for the voter’s county of residence because the city of Houston resides in 3 counties.  Here’s one page of the Houston petition showing that this was not properly done…

petition p1

 

Though petition information is public record, Texas Leftist has chosen not to publish the names of signees or of the petition collector.

So it’s possible that even Houston could have taken the initial position of invalidating all signatures for this fact alone.  Of course in taking such a path, the city may have opened itself up to scrutiny of previous petitions that have been accepted without all of the proper information, yet were honored on good faith effort.   As Houston awaits a final count of valid signatures, it will be interesting to see if any elements brought forth in the Plano situation affect the fate of HERO.

 

Texoblogosphere: Week of February 23rd

The Texas Progressive Alliance congratulates Sarah Goodfriend and Suzanne Bryant on the event of their wedding as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Off the Kuff took issue with the initial reactions to the SD26 special election runoff result.

Light seeker at Texas Kaos continues to take down Fox News and its cynical use of fear, divide, conquer and false equivalencies. Its tactics are literally tearing us apart. The Fear and Hate Chronicles (Part 2) Part I it can be found here.

CouldBeTrue of South Texas Chisme sees the Republican hatred of non-white people is stronger than their need to show off their manly (sic) military muscles. Their ignorance has a price and their plutocrat owners, unfortunately, are not the ones paying.

From WCNews at Eye on Williamson. Tax cuts for the rich, tax increases for everyone else, A Slow Migration – Patrick’s Tax Swap Scheme.

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein’s Texas tour now includes College Station and Laredo, in addition to this week’s Monday evening and Tuesday appearances In Houston. PDiddie’s Brains and Eggs has more details.

Neil at All People Have Value took a nighttime walk. APHV is part of NeilAquino.com.

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And here are some posts of interest from other Texas blogs.

Unfair Park looks into some rather unconventional speakers for Earth Day Texas 2015.

RG Ratcliffe takes a deeper dive into Greg Abbott’s campaign finance reports.

The Lunch Tray finds another example of craven grandstanding at the expense of children’s health.

HOU Equality reminds us that discrimination happens all around us, all the time.

TFN Insider reports from the faith leaders’ rally for LGBT rights at the Capitol.

Grits for Breakfast does not see marijuana “legalization”, however one defines that, in the cards this year.

Finally, In The 84th looks at the current legislative session in the most logical way, with GIFs and snark.

Austin 2015

This week’s featured image is of downtown Austin, Texas from South Congress street, taken by me. Thanks Austin for being the birthplace of Texas Marriage Equality!!

 

Texas Leftist 5-year Anniversary

A voice for the rest of Texas.  

TL 30k

Honestly, the slogan, like the name was just something I came up with on the fly.  I mean, who is the “rest” of Texas anyway??  I never intended to actually start a blog, much less have it run on its own website.

The origin of Texas Leftist is actually quite simple.  My Facebook page was mired in a sea of comments from people that agreed or disagreed with me, and I finally decided that rather than lose like 100 friends over politics, it would be much easier to just start a blog and have an outlet for my thoughts. The national debate was becoming so divisive (newsflash… it still is), that it seemed like we forgot how to be civil and actually listen to each other.

Some read the word “Leftist” and assume an extreme ideology, but that has never been the intention for this blog. In fact, the very first post was actually an appeal for moderation and common sense in the raging healthcare debate. After just a couple of posts in 2010, I stopped blogging for a while, but came back in 2012 when I just couldn’t deal with all of the misinformation circling the wagons out there… especially in Texas.  So once again, I tried to at least counter the lies with some fact-based assessment.

Since then, blogging has become a regular and treasured activity.  From political interviews and election “analysis” to music and cultural events, Texas Leftist has nearly taken on a life of its own.  A new ad-free website (and help from a great, tech-savvy friend) has made posts easier and better than ever before.  Never could I have imagined that this blog would lead to coverage on the Chronicle website, an op-ed via CultureMap, references on Forbes.com and even panel punditry on Houston radio.  Every bit of it still seems unreal.

So have I succeeded in being “a voice for the rest of Texas”?  Not sure, as it seems a very huge task for any singular individual to achieve.  But at least something can be said for adding another unique perspective to the state and national conversation… one that hopefully helps readers along their way.

5 years strong.  Thank you for reading!

Or is it 3??

On the Road Again: Turner Enters Houston Mayor’s Race

Most people are guided by an old idiom… “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”  Implied within is the assumption that even the most challenging tasks are worth at least three attempts.

That saying has now proven to be the case for State Representative Sylvester Turner, whom finally revealed Houston’s worst kept political secret this week.  Via campaign press release, he’s running for Mayor and bringing some big ideas with him…

State Representative Sylvester Turner announced his candidacy for Mayor of Houston this morning – and immediately proposed a new “Road to the Future” initiative to teach young Houstonians a combination of vocational and life skills they need to become employable while providing on-the-job training repairing Houston’s streets and roads.

“We all need smoother streets,” said Turner. “But we also need to build better roads to the future for so many of our young people who are being left behind. I know we can do both.”

[…]

As part of the Road to the Future initiative, Turner will bring together community colleges, businesses, labor unions and non-profit organizations to create a combination of classroom instruction and structured summer jobs, after-school jobs, after-high-school jobs and bridge jobs – real jobs with real skills that will help make the promise of Houston real for every Houstonian.

Turner said his priorities as mayor will include a top-to-bottom performance review of the city’s Department of Public Works and implementation of a quick-fix program for potholes; stepping up community policing efforts and improving relationships between HPD and communities of color; and addressing economic inequality through increased support for schools and better aligning community college-based workforce training with actual private sector job needs.

A veteran of Texas politics, this latest declaration follows a 12 year gap between his last run for Mayor in 2003, and a 1991 run 12 years before that.

Turner is entering the race with some important advantages, certainly not the least of which is the bold new jobs proposal discussed above, and in his first campaign video.  It may be no coincidence that the candidate’s Road to the Future proposal holds some similarities with a recent partnership formed by the city (via the Houston Airport System) and local community colleges.  The process Turner has put on the table is taking much of what Mayor Parker and CM Jerry Davis outlined, but applying it to other areas of city infrastructure.  But the major attribute of Turner’s plan is that it could occur all across the city, instead of having to transport participants to one training site like IAH.  Even if it doesn’t end up happening, it’s smart politics to start off the race with big ideas that are going to get noticed.

But along with big ideas, Sylvester Turner has also proven he can bring the big bucks.  As the Houston Chronicle‘s Theodore Schleifer reports, Turner has a huge fundraising advantage over other mayoral candidates right out of the gate.

On Friday, Turner is expected to name David Mincberg as his campaign treasurer of his mayoral account and inform the Texas Ethics Commission that his legislative account is effectively closed. He will begin the mayoral race with $900,000 of that $1 million to spend, according to his campaign, a head start that motivated a still-alive challenge by one of Turner’s opponents, Chris Bell, who argues that Turner is violating city campaign laws.

Who’s to say if fellow candidate Chris Bell’s complaints will gain any traction.  And of course anything can happen in the next 9 months.  But for today, the road ahead of Sylvester Turner appears quite promising in his run for City Hall.  We’ll all have to wait to find out if the 3rd time truly is the charm.

A Voice for the Rest of Texas