By: Mihir Zaveri
© Houston Chronicle • June 25, 2017
When former state Senator Rodney Ellis launched his campaign to succeed the late El Franco Lee as Harris County Precinct 1 commissioner last year, he said he would shake up Harris County government.
He’s kept his promise.
Not even three months into his tenure, Ellis filed court papers siding against the county he now helps govern in a costly civil rights case, tearing apart a bail system he said keeps the poor behind bars ahead of their court hearings while the rich can walk free.
A day later, at what typically is an all-but-perfunctory biweekly meeting of Harris County Commissioners Court, Ellis’ colleagues returned fire.
Unprecedented, one remarked. Another questioned whether Ellis, a lawyer, had a financial incentive for the county to be sued. A third, turning to face Ellis, accused him of “joining a lawsuit” instead of bringing ideas to his colleagues.
“I want you to know that I’m calling upon you to put on your commissioner hat,” said Jack Cagle, whose Precinct 4 stretches across north Harris County. “Not your lawyer hat. Not your senator hat, but your commissioner hat.”
Since Ellis took office Jan. 1, the veteran politician’s style – applying public pressure to advance causes he holds dear – has grated against tradition for a commissioners court that has long relied on quiet, behind-the-scenes deal-making to operate a more than $3 billion enterprise and govern the third largest county in the United States.
“I believe that he thrives in seeking publicity,” said Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, himself no stranger to making headlines with controversial comments over nearly three decades on the court. “That is not the norm that I have seen in Commissioners Court over the years.”
Observers suggest that Ellis’s arrival could signal a shift for the Republican-dominated body, a sign of things to come in a county growing increasingly diverse and Democratic.
“Rodney is as much a catalyst as he is a consequence of what’s happening in county government,” said Robert Stein, Rice University political scientist.
As for the legal brief in the bail lawsuit, Ellis said he was “tired of waiting.”
“I’m going to do as much as I can to encourage, to cajole, to plead and beg,” he said in response to Cagle. “I’d be more than happy to have more discussions like this in candid right here, by the way. I think that’s a good thing. Now, if my style is a little different from the traditional commissioner, hey, I appreciate you and I’m willing to learn, but I’m not going to change what I’ve done for 32 years in public office.”
On a recent Wednesday, Ellis sat in a conference room in his precinct office in an unassuming gray, two-story building near NRG Park. The space still is being decorated, though one hallway – an “ego wall,” he jokes – already is plastered with images from Ellis’s political career, which began in 1983 with his election to Houston City Council, and matured through 26 years in the Texas Senate as a Democrat in an increasingly red state.
“Sometimes I joke with my colleagues: All of you would be liberals compared to the people I have worked with during my Senate career,” Ellis said.
His urban precinct covers much of Houston, curling north from the southeastern tip of Harris County – through neighborhoods, including Sunnyside, downtown, Montrose and the Bush airport area – before dipping back down the east side. About 40 percent of the precinct’s residents are black, 37 percent are Hispanic and 18 percent white.
Ellis represents 1.2 million people and controls a $200 million precinct budget.
The Precinct 1 seat was held for more than 30 years by Lee until his sudden death by heart attack last year. Lee widely was regarded as a force in local Democratic politics and an effective commissioner by the Republicans on the court, and by Ellis.
He also was seen as a member of the “old school,” said Michael Adams, a Texas Southern University political scientist, who drew a distinction between Lee and Ellis: “Going along to get along to get some change versus pushing hard to get big changes by not being afraid of not being one of the guys.”
As the lawsuit over the county’s bail system picked up steam early this year, that difference became apparent.
At his first meeting in January, Ellis remained largely silent outside of a few words of thanks, saying he wanted to “observe” and “get to know his colleagues.”
Over the next few months, Ellis sparred publicly with nearly all of them.
“To watch Rodney plant himself in commissioners court and, obviously, become a burr under the saddle of the other commissioners and the county judge, it hasn’t deterred him one bit,” said John Whitmire, a Democrat who served with Ellis in the Senate, often as an ally.
In addition to Cagle’s exchange with Ellis at the March meeting, Radack waved Ellis’s legal brief in the air and questioned whether the freshman commissioner had asked the law firms to sue the county and whether he should be left out of closed sessions with the county attorney to discuss the lawsuit.
At another meeting, after Ellis refused to vote in favor of paying the attorneys who helped defend the county in the bail lawsuit, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett pointedly likened it to not paying engineers who build roads and bridges, mainstays of county government.
The debates amount to a transition Ellis is going through, Cagle said, adding that the loudest often wins out in the Senate or on city council.
“Here, the one who plays his cards close to the vest, and calculates where to cast his one vote when people are trying to get to three, that’s the one that achieves the most,” he said.
Conflict on court is not without precedent. Emmett, when he first joined, butted heads with Radack and Cagle’s predecessor, Jerry Eversole, after he pushed for longtime, trusted budget officer Dick Raycraft to retire.
“Things come and go, they ebb and flow,” Emmett said.
It remains unclear, he said, what kind of impact Ellis’s disagreements will have or whether they will leave “permanent scars” on his relationships with court members.
“That’s the real test,” Emmett said. “Absent a high-profile issue like the lawsuit, how will things work?”
Some disagreement has spilled outside of the context of the lawsuit.
The four Republican court members voted over Ellis’ objection to modify the county’s legislative policy earlier this year. Previously, commissioners needed to vote unanimously to set what the county’s position would be on various legislative issues, such as property tax reform. Now, setting legislative priorities takes a simple majority vote.
Radack said he did not direct the change at his new colleague, stating that he had proposed it before Ellis was on court as well.
“Everyone in the legislature will know what’s going on,” said Stein, who said unanimity is difficult to achieve. “It really is an attempt just to take away from Rodney the veto.”
As to whether he believes his disagreements could hamper his effectiveness as a commissioner, Ellis said he was elected to do a job.
Outside of the bail bond lawsuit, Ellis has been cordial with his colleagues – the vast majority of votes taken on road upgrades, new parks or other county business has been, as is Commissioners Court tradition, without fanfare.
“I understand that Commissioners Court has operated a bit differently in the past,” Ellis said. “In my roles as Houston city councilman and Texas state senator, I have always been able to work with other elected officials who have opposing views on issues. That is part of public service.”
Sense of urgency
Ellis came to the county commissioner position, he said, to be closer to the issues he has advocated for decades.
“Commissioners Court is a perfect place to be,” said Sylvia Garcia, a Senate colleague of Ellis’ who was a Harris County commissioner from 2002 to 2010. “We’ve got the largest jail in the state and one of the largest in the country. What better place to try new innovative things or better place to implement reforms or a better place to implement change?”
Ellis said while court meetings get much of the attention, his office also is working on services for his precinct, including road maintenance, park improvements and a new “splash pad” at El Franco Lee Park south of Hobby Airport.
He is conducting a precinct-wide road assessment to set long-term priorities, expected to be complete later this year. He also has raised the minimum wage for his precinct employees to $15 per hour, resulting in a pay bump – from as low as $12.88 per hour – for more than 40 workers, he said.
Meanwhile, Harris County grows increasingly Democratic, Stein said. Last year, Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research annual survey found more than half of county residents lean Democratic for the first time in more than three decades.
As for his future, Ellis promised to keep pushing for issues that are important to him. He is guided by, as he puts it, a sense of urgency.
“My time could be limited because I am 63,” he said. “I am cognizant of close political allies that, too, passed on fairly young, Mickey Leland at 44, El Franco Lee at 65. At 63, I do probably spend more time thinking about when I have to look in the rearview mirror, as opposed to looking forward ahead of me, so that puts me in a rush.”
On the other hand, Ellis said, his father is 95, so he could be around for a while.
Paid for by Rodney Ellis Campaign Committee.