Shortly before Vince Ryan and Robert Eckels were to engage in the first major debate of their race for county judge, Ryan crossed paths with outgoing County Judge Jon Lindsay between tables near the podium at the hotel ballroom.
Ryan shook Lindsay's hand and cracked, "Judge, aren't you glad you're not doing this now?" To which Lindsay replied, according to Ryan, "Vince, I wish I was, so I could get out and rebut some of the crap you're putting out."
Lindsay's lack of civility was understandable. Even though his name's not on the ballot, Lindsay, who stands indicted on a perjury charge (for allegedly lying on finance reports about his use of $200,000 in campaign money to purchase a dive boat for his son) and has been accused of accepting a bribe from a now-dead developer for rerouting a county road back in 1985, is caught in the middle of the battle for the job he's relinquishing after 20 years. His pale presence hovers like a specter over the contest between Eckels and Ryan -- as a prime target of Ryan, who's portraying county government as a corrupt nest of "insiders" presided over by Lindsay, and as a prime supporter of Eckels, who has inherited Lindsay's financial support from the insiders who've generously funded the judge's past campaigns and have generously benefited from county contracts.
Other faces -- some long gone from the scene -- are arrayed in the background as Ryan and Eckels enter the final weeks of their campaign. There's County Attorney Mike Driscoll, Ryan's former boss and longtime ally and Lindsay's longtime nemesis. Although he appears to be nearly physically incapacitated by the Parkinson's disease with which he has been afflicted for several years, Driscoll is still pursuing the lawsuit he filed to remove Lindsay from office because of the bribery allegation -- despite the fact Lindsay will leave office in January.
Then there's former Precinct 5 Constable Tracy Maxon, Robert Eckels' onetime boss, who was sentenced to a federal prison in 1989, after being found guilty of laundering money for an IRS agent posing as a drug trafficker. And there's Eckels' father, former County Commissioner Bob Eckels, who died in 1989, after being convicted of theft and forced to resign from office, and whose name is still synonymous with corruption in the minds of many county residents.
Ryan, a 47-year-old former Houston city councilman, and Robert Eckels, a 37-year-old state representative, are the inheritors of all the bad blood that's flowed through Harris County government for the past decade. That legacy is a burden for Eckels, not just because of the name he shares with his father, but also because he seems strangely unwilling to acknowledge the taint that spread over county operations in the 1980s. For Ryan, it's an opportunity, one that the calculating and ambitious Democrat is vigorously exploiting in an attempt to reverse the continuing tilt of Harris County toward the Republican side of the ballot.
The winner will come into another inheritance -- a county debt load approaching $3 billion -- when he takes Lindsay's place as the head of county government in three months. Once a mostly rural-based gravel-spreading enterprise, that government has evolved in recent decades into a massive operation that does the flood control work and road-building that has paved the way for Houston's suburban sprawl. It has control over the Astrodome, runs the charity hospital system for the mostly inner-city poor and operates the toll-road system used mostly by suburban commuters.
The county judge has one of five votes on Commissioners Court, which also includes four precinct commissioners. Each commissioner is the overlord of his precinct, with a largely self-supervised budget the size of those for small Texas cities. The judge's administrative powers depend on a working majority vote on the court. A majority is built on behind-the-scenes tradeoffs between the players rather than ideological or party alignments. At Commissioners Court, the first and sometimes only dictum of Robert's Rules of Order is, "Don't mess with my budget and I won't mess with yours." The lack of a strict party line is one reason why Commissioner Steve Radack is the most critical voice on the court of fellow Republican Lindsay, and explains how Lindsay could have feuded for years with another Republican who helped elect him to office, the late Commissioner Eckels.
In the behind-the-scenes, ''who knows who" murk of Harris County administration, such feuds can stretch across decades, so it's little wonder that the two candidates of the moment carry historical baggage so distracting that sometimes they seem more like mere bellhops dragging the luggage from debate to debate.
Early in his campaign Ryan referred to Robert Eckels as "Bob Eckels Jr." (The younger Eckels is not a junior. There was a Bob Eckels Jr., an older brother, who died in infancy.) Eckels, meanwhile, alternately embraces his father's memory and sets himself apart from the elder Eckels, especially when it comes to distinguishing the difference in their first names. The last name is definitely a problem for Eckels, as suggested by a radio ad he's airing that quotes Texas Monthly's description of him as "squeaky-clean."
"Dad was dad and I was proud of him," says Eckels. "I believe he was convicted of a crime he did not commit. I did not see any personal gains that he [received] as a member of Commissioners Court. What I saw was the sacrifices he made and the strain it put upon the family."
Counters Ryan: "I can accept Robert saying all the time, 'I love my dad,' but [his saying] 'I'm proud of my dad' goes a little too far for me. I both loved and was proud of my dad, but my dad didn't betray the public trust...."
Ryan has more frequently referred to his opponent as "Jon Lindsay Jr.", actually a more justifiable political linkage than the one to his father, given that Eckels has Lindsay's support, has relied heavily on him for advice about county operations and is funding his campaign with contributions from most of the same contractors, law firms and bond houses that stocked Lindsay's campaign war chest (the one he's now tapping to pay lawyer David Berg in his legal defense against criminal charges and Driscoll's lawsuit). Lindsay's two top aides, Don Lee and Ron Dear, showed up to help Eckels at his first debate with Ryan.
Ryan holds Lindsay primarily responsible for pursuing a too-aggressive building program that has benefited his contributors while leaving the county saddled with dangerously full debt load.
"Harris County government is still run by people in a very small clique, a subgroup of engineers, architects. I believe they're delivering very poor value for the dollar," Ryan says. "They've taken county debt from $200 million to almost $3 billion as we sit, saying, 'It's good, it's good, it's good.'"
Lindsay, he says, is "a self-admitted liar," who's told falsehoods in a court deposition, to a reporter and in an ad in the Chronicle he took out to defend himself shortly after the bribery allegations surfaced last summer.
While Ryan runs as an outsider and reformer, Eckels has chosen a more convoluted role: campaigning as a team player, embracing the past while calling for minor adjustments, appealing to the supporters of the status quo and trying to avoid being tarred by it at the same time.
He joins Lindsay in accusing Driscoll of pointlessly pushing the removal lawsuit against Lindsay solely to help his former top assistant, Ryan, win the November 8 election. And Eckels will not concede that Jon Lindsay -- or Bob Eckels or even Tracy Maxon -- did anything ethically or legally wrong.
Some things you're born to. Robert Eckels learned the political arts from Bob Eckels, perhaps the most intimidating power player county government has seen in modern times. In his early twenties, the younger Eckels won a west Houston state House seat largely through the heft of his family name and the support of his father. After his father's death, Eckels entered law school using funds inherited from his dad, and passed the bar exam last year.
Clean cut, lanky, and soft spoken, Eckels seems nothing like his cigar chewing, jowly, mustachioed father. Unlike the senior Eckels, the storied boss of the 'burbs tripped up by a purloined stack of county railroad timbers found on his property, Robert Eckels is an urbane, unimposing, Montrose resident with a new wife whose previous political connections were mostly Democratic. People who know the younger Eckels are quick to point out he has the reflective personality and sensibilities of his mother, Carolyn, who divorced Bob Eckels years before his downfall.
One recent afternoon at the McDuffie Street townhouse he and his wife, Metro lobbyist Jet Eckels, have shared for the past three months, Eckels has been speaking in well-modulated tones for more than an hour about his quest for the county judgeship. But as the subject of his father arises for the umpteenth time, his wife, who's been sitting all the while next to her husband on a well-stuffed corner couch in their living room, has heard enough.
"Although I never had the opportunity to meet Bob Eckels, I wish I had because I think I would have liked him very much," declares the new Mrs. Eckels, a seasoned legislative pro who's previously worked for liberal state Senator Oscar Mauzy and Mayor Kathy Whitmire. "I'm offended that Robert's opponent keeps bringing his name up and dragging him through the dirt. I think it's absolutely ghoulish and I think Bob Eckels deserves to rest in peace."
But five minutes later, both Eckels and his wife are defending his characterization of Ryan as a tax-and-spend, big government, Dukakis-style, Clinton-loving liberal -- despite the fact that Ryan has a history of opposing excessive government borrowing and fashioned a record as a moderate while first assistant in the county attorney's office and as a three-term city councilman.
"That's totally different," Mrs. Eckels says of the Eckels' variety of guilt-by-association. "In Robert's opinion, when you run a race, it is not fair game to attack someone's family, and perhaps he's more cognizant of that because people have always attacked his father." Adds Eckels: "When we talk about Vince Ryan, we talk about him being a liberal and supporting more and bigger central government; he supported Mike Dukakis and he supported Bill Clinton and whatever groups from the left that he's supported, and there's been a lot of them."
Maybe so, but Eckels often seems to be trying to replicate the Lee Atwater-engineered smears on Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign, while declaring as off-limits his own associations in county government and his opinion of how that government has operated over the last two decades.
"That's all fair game," he says of Ryan's alleged ideological indiscretions. "Now I don't propose to get up and talk about Vince's personal history, his finances or criminal background ... I don't know anything about Vince's father, his grandfather or his uncle. But from this campaign you'd think Vince didn't have a family. I guess we could point out his dad, and everything his dad ever did in his life."
"But that's not relevant," Mrs. Eckels interjects.
Eckels cultivated the support of the religious right in his victory over District Clerk Katherine Tyra in last spring's Republican primary runoff, so he's not anxious to play up his own moderate past, including consistent legislative support for legalized abortion. Instead, he attacks Ryan's early statements supporting county hospital district funding for abortions for indigent women. (Ryan now claims it's a non-issue, since Planned Parenthood officials say a county clinic isn't needed.)
Eckels also cites Ryan's use of his council position to advocate allowing gays to serve openly in the military, and in passing mentions Ryan's support from the Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. Of course, the unpublicized visit by Eckels and his wife to a meeting of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay GOP group, a few weeks back gets a more favorable interpretation. Log Cabin President Kenneth Wilk says Eckels "basically has been a friend of our community, but not in a very open way. As he said, he's got to work with the political reality."
Eckels' sister Carol Adams, 15 months younger than the candidate, reveres her brother to the point where she says it sometimes irritates her husband. Taking a break from the bit role of a voter questioning the candidate in a shoot for a TV spot at Eckels' West Loop headquarters, she reflects on their political background.
"I think that Robert is doing something he grew up learning how to do. He knows politics, he knows what can happen .... We've been there for winning campaigns, losing campaigns; we've watched our parents' marriage dissolve, our dad's health deteriorate. Robert knows the pitfalls and he also knows the potential that's there and he can get there. To be as young as he is and have as much history as he does, to know as much as he does, is very unusual."
Eckels almost paid a stiff price for his father's politics when he was a young boy. During a race for commissioner in 1968, Bob Eckels and his family received threats, and an Eckels' campaign bus had been burned. Then one day that summer a bullet was fired into the Eckels' house, creasing the younger Eckels' skull. "I was standing at the back window getting an ice tray," remembers Robert, who was 10 at the time. "Had I not bent over when the gun was fired it would have hit me square between the eyes. The bullet hit the top of my head and traveled between the skull and the scalp and lodged outside my skull."
At 19, Eckels went to work for Constable Tracy Maxon, a protege of his father known as "Bob's Boy," whose notoriously unqualified reserves terrorized motorists and whose reputation motivated Steve Radack, currently the Precinct 3 commissioner, to enter politics. Eckels worked as a deputy constable for Maxon for several years until he was elected to the Texas House in 1982.
"Driving a patrol car is one of the most fun things you can do," says Eckels. "Other ways it's some of the most scary things you can do, when you're by yourself at 2 or 3 in the morning out on those county roads, and in those days you didn't have the computerized backup you have now. The dispatchers weren't as sophisticated ...."
Radack, who succeeded Maxon as constable and then was elected to the elder Eckels' commissioner post after his ouster, says Maxon was considered "a joke" by legitimate law enforcement organizations. "Most saw him as purely a politico hiding behind a badge," Radack says. "I got so tired of seeing deputies from Maxon's office having young ladies stopped, and many times the girls would be crying and you just knew something was wrong."
Asked whether he witnessed any of those abuses Radack describes, Eckels replies: "Yeah, I did and I heard of it. It wasn't anything that was unique to Tracy's office, although Tracy had some people who were deputies who shouldn't have been deputies. That's what cost him his job eventually. I never saw where Tracy, in the process of running his office, personally made a bunch of money or did wonderful things for Tracy."
Eckels later clarified his answer. "I don't recall any instances in Tracy's office of women filing complaints for sexual harassment. It wasn't something I was aware of at the time."
When it comes to Lindsay, Eckels says he doesn't view the incumbent as an issue in his race with Ryan. "I don't want to take credit for anything he's done or condemn him for anything that he did or shouldn't do. I'm very different from Jon. At the same time, I've got some similar personality traits. I think Jon has been a good person to look at a broader picture of the county in many ways."
As for the idea that Lindsay's crowd has gravitated to him for reasons of self-interest, Eckels says, "I like to think that's because over the years I've developed good working relationships with most all of these people as well. That I have a reputation as a pretty evenhanded, fair person who will not go off and make rash decisions."
Eckels claims Ryan was quite willing to take the support of those same "insiders" when he was on City Council. "I like to think that I have not inherited Lindsay's support but I've inherited Vince's support," he says. "We've both worked with these people over the years, but in the 13 years I've been in the Legislature I raised $200,000, or less than $15,000 a year. In the six years Vince served on City Council he raised almost $800,000, primarily from the contractors and engineers and the vendors at City Hall. Some of my biggest contributors were also his biggest contributors."
Eckels says he'll bring a more "reasonable" and "evenhanded" approach to government, while Ryan would make "arbitrary decisions" and be "just the gadfly he has prided himself as being."
The last characterization isn't one Ryan would agree with, but he's definitely not promising business-as-usual. "My biggest influence on Commissioners Court will be that I do things in public," Ryan says. "You're going to get good government, and you're going to get to read about it more in the newspapers .... What if one of those five members is willing to tell the radio what he or she thinks about somthing? Whoa, yougot news. Well, I call that flipping the light switch."
Vince Ryan is an unhappy camper at his headquarters off the West Loop at 9 a.m. The Clear Lake area native with the high forehead and spindly frame is all non-stop chatter and waving arms, as animated and motor mouthed as Robert Eckels is laid back and drawly. He's vexed at the moment about a Chronicle editorial ripping his plan to use $20 million rerouted from the county hospital district for law enforcement. The editorial ridicules Ryan for trying to imitate Mayor Bob Lanier's diversion of Metro funds for law enforcement and street maintenance. "I sit down on the crapper and I have to read this shit," mock moans Ryan, who contends the editorial writers missed his point that the funds had already been diverted into the county budget and would not be used for indigent health care, anyway.
The itinerary this morning calls for Ryan and his fiance, Pamela Rodriguez, to tour the Pasadena Rodeo while the candidate judges a barbecue contest. This is the first campaign outing for Rodriguez, a 27-year-old dental assistant from San Antonio who's known Ryan for a year and is far more concerned about planning their December wedding in San Antonio than hitting the hustings to woo votes. Ryan, however, is a political jukebox. Punch a number, and hear the rap. For instance, what do Bob Eckels and county history have to do with the current campaign?
"I think county government is a system of good ol' boys, and quite frankly, my opponent has been a good ol' boy since he was a boy," says Ryan, affecting an exaggerated, sarcastic country twang. "He learned about county government from his dad, driving around Harris County looking at the roads his dad built where there wasn't any development. His dad was the infamous road-to-nowhere county commissioner. For at least the period of time I've observed county government, close to 14 years, it's been a system about who you know rather than what you know, a system that has gone crazy on debt to fund projects."
As a college student Ryan dove into party life at the University of Houston and emerged with a no-contest plea to a charge of driving while intoxicated and a six-month probation at age 20. After graduating and completing an Army tour of duty in Europe and Vietnam, he returned to Houston and was charged with DWI following a two-vehicle collision in 1973. While acknowledging that DWI is a serious offense, Ryan says the incidents were "all a long time ago" and that he learned from the mistakes. He also says he's twice recieved "top secret special background clearance" for military assignments. (Ryan also recently underwent an FBI background check for a pending nomination by Clinton to the Panama Canal Commission, slated to be announced this week. The post involves quarterly meetings that Ryan says he'll use to promote Harris County as a Latin American trading partner.)
Like many of the people who gravitated to Mike Driscoll in his first campaign for county attorney in 1980, Ryan is an eclectic, non-traditional politico. He holds a master's degree in history from Rice, in addition to a law degree. The man he hired to investigate Commissioner Bob Eckels' dealings, Terry O'Rourke, still an assistant county attorney, has a master's in hydrology from Rice. Both are lawyers who have little love for conventional lawyering.
Ryan first hooked up with Driscoll after returning from California, where he had been working on a still-unpublished novel "of war and revolution" set in Mexico. Kicking around and entertaining a career as a writer, Ryan tried his hand at a private law practice and volunteered for Driscoll's campaign. He slipped into the role of surrogate speaker for the candidate, then got a job offer when Driscoll took office. Two-and-half years later, the erstwhile novelist became Driscoll's first assistant, and as one not unfriendly observer puts it, "made the trains run on time in a rather mediocre operation."
Ryan's loyalty to Driscoll -- something of an eccentric himself who has dabbled in Erhard Sensitivity Training (E.S.T.) and urged staffers to do likewise -- is total. "Mike is one of the best bosses in the world to work for," says Ryan. "We meshed very well. He was very supportive and allowed me to become more of a persona. Most people in politics don't want their number one person having their own persona."
Driscoll's relationship with Lindsay was a nonstarter that got worse. There was a previous electoral bid by Driscoll for county judge, which he lost in a Democratic primary runoff. And there was the fact that Driscoll beat Ron Dear in the race for county attorney. Dear later became Lindsay's chief of staff. The defining clash between the two offices came over the power of the county attorney to supervise Lindsay's pet project, the county toll roads.
Voters had approved $900 million in tax-supported bonds to construct a toll road system in Harris County, and Driscoll and staff immediately geared up to do the legal work. "Our concern was public business ought to be done by the public's attorney," says Ryan. "If you want to change that system, go to the Legislature or go to the people. We ended up having to sue Commissioners Court, the county auditor, the county treasurer, who all sided with the commissioners, Vinson & Elkins and Fulbright & Jaworski." Driscoll lost the first legal round in civil court, but won two later rounds before appeals courts.
"Next session of the Legislature, there was a midnight amendment to a bill," Ryan says, his voice lowering to a conspiratorial whisper, "allowing commissioners courts in counties over two million to select their own bond counsel." With that amendment, Lindsay effectively took control of the awarding of lucrative contracts for bond lawyers, though the assignments still require a majority vote of Commissioners Court.
Ryan likes to play up his role in bringing Eckels' father to justice, and in fact the county attorney's office did pursue civil cases against precinct contractor Durwood Greene, who overcharged the county for millions of dollars in road-building materials. But in one of the strange relations that characterize county politics, Driscoll was also a good friend of Eckels, and continued to appear at his political barbecues and breakfasts right up until the commissioner was removed from office. District Attorney Johnny Holmes, who has remained neutral in the current county judge race, says of Ryan's involvement: "You can put me on the record as saying it's my recollection Vince Ryan had nothing at all to do with regards to the cases against Bob Eckels, and certainly not the removal part of it, because they could have been involved in a nanosecond by signing on the bottom of that petition."
According to Holmes, he needed Driscoll's signature on a petition to remove Eckels from office due to an appellate court ruling that the district attorney had no authority in civil matters. He says the county attorney refused to cooperate. Holmes' assistant at the time, Ray Speece, expands on that point: "Holmes had Driscoll come over to his office. All he had to do was sign the lawsuit, and he refused to do so."
Driscoll denies Holmes ever asked him to join such a suit. Ryan says he can't recall such an offer and claims his testimony against Eckels in Holmes' criminal prosecution of the commissioner was proof of the county attorney's office dedication to seeing him ousted.
The idea that Driscoll is now simply pursuing a vendetta in his removal suit against Lindsay is dismissed by Ryan as a figment of Lindsay's imagination.
"I think the rivalry and 'vendetta' has always been in the mind of Jon Lindsay. I would probably carry a vendetta. Most people probably have that within them, except for one person I've run across, and that's Mike Driscoll."
Several hours after the first Ryan-Eckels debate, Jon Lindsay is still steamed. "Well, I kinda feel like I'm the candidate after listening to Mr. Ryan, at least," he says. "I prefer Robert Eckels, of course, over Vince Ryan. Vince Ryan would not make a good county judge for many reasons. He's just misrepresenting the facts. I kinda wish I was in the campaign to respond to his accusations."
What really bugs him, Lindsay explains, is the Democrat's attack on the county's mounting debt. "He's lumping in all the toll road debt and trying to make it sound like it's part of our general obligation debt." In fact, Lindsay says, the fees from the toll roads are paying off the debt obligations the county incurred for them and are actually making money. And if you remove the toll roads from the picture, Lindsay adds, the percentage of property taxes collected for debt by the county is less than when he took office in 1971. "It's something I'm proud of," he says.
So does Lindsay expect a victorious Eckels to continue his style of governance?
"No, I don't think so," he replies. "He's going to keep the infrastructure development going, which I believe is important to job creation in our community. They're both touting crime as the number one issue, and maybe it is the number one issue. I'm not sure, but they've got to remember there's some other big issues out there as well .... Equally important is job creation in our community. And you're not going to do it without the infrastructure that we need in that community."
As to the idea that the entire Lindsay "clique" has adopted Robert Eckels, Lindsay says, "The people that traditionally contribute to my race or the mayor's race are those that are interested in continuing infrastructure development. It's not unusual at all for them to be involved in my race because that's what I believe in. Since Ryan is touting that we're going to quit pouring concrete, and says it in almost every speech, it's not unexpected that those same people would be alarmed."
Ryan's proposed consolidation of each precinct's road-and-bridge operations into a countywide agency, something that would require commissioners to give up a large slice of their budgets, "ain't gonna happen," Lindsay declares. "That's pretty naive. He thinks he's getting on to something that's going to be popular among the masses out there, and among some people, the people that believe bigger is better, that might be popular. But I think when those same people stop and realize they're not going to have direct contact with a commissioner, or in the case of law enforcement, a constable, who is elected from a smaller area, even they would have second thoughts about it."
As his 20 years as county judge, and probably his political career, come to a close, Lindsay finds himself easing his way out of office. "I'm starting to slow down, as my office staff will tell you; taking a few more days off than I usually do." But even at the end of the road, Lindsay can't resist slipping in one more mild dig at an old adversary.
"Mike's not been around lately," he observes. "Comes in once a week, for maybe half a day .... I think his illness is getting to him."
In fact, Driscoll now works primarily out of his home, as the progressively more severe ravages of Parkinson's disease have their way. It took a week of inquiries and one postponement before he finally sat down for an interview at his downtown office. His speech was strained yet lucid, but throughout the interview his head, arms
and legs jerked and writhed uncontrollably. While Lindsay, so far, has apparently defied Driscoll's best efforts and will probably leave office on schedule, it will be a struggle for Driscoll to complete his own term, which ends in 1996, much less contemplate running for office again. Clearly, the decade-long feud between these two officials has nearly run its course.
Driscoll claims there's no hidden agenda in his effort to remove Lindsay from office, even though the judge has one foot out the door. "I've run this office on the basis of what comes in -- you take care of business," he says. "Like when Lindsay took the board directorship of Houston Lighting and Power -- it was my opinion he'd violated the oath of office and I could have filed a removal action against him then. And Jon's biggest defense against all the things he has done arrogantly, irresponsibly and greedily, has always been, 'Well, Driscoll just doesn't like me. It's personal.'"
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But the so-called "vendetta" actually can be traced to Lindsay, Driscoll says. "My watershed with Lindsay was the day I walked in to office. I called to have lunch with the judge to do an orientation and I was informed, 'The judge doesn't have lunch' ... the watershed was from day one."
Like Lindsay, Driscoll has left little doubt who he's rooting for in the future county order. "Vince would be his own man, someone who's a thinker, somebody who's got experience on his own. He has the military background. Leadership qualities. Robert's a good guy. I don't dislike him or think he's dishonest. But he's an endorsement of the current system, which embraces 'spend money, don't care what you spend it on. Keep the money rolling.' Heck, Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock's still laughing about us buying the [debt-laden Jesse] Jones Bridge [from the state]."
But Driscoll says the race between Ryan and Eckels will result in a changing of the guard at the county, the end of old fights and perhaps the beginning of new conflicts.
"I'm passing from the scene too, whether it be this term or next term, or somewhere in between," Driscoll says. "I think this community would be much better served by Vince .... But when a politician endorses anybody else, all he ever does is give the other person his enemies. So I'm just telling you how I'm going to vote.