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Four judges and a district attorney from the community join the celebration of November’s blue sweep of Harris County.
Story and photos by Brandon Wolf
Democrats in general are still feeling the sting of last November’s election loss. But in Harris County, the presidential upset was matched by a stunning countywide upset, in which all open countywide offices were won by Democrats.
The entire group of 26 judicial races was won by Democrats—23 of the 26 were endorsed by the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, and three of the judicial winners are openly LGBT (Steve Kirkland, Daryl Moore, and Kelli Johnson). A fourth LGBT judge, Jim Evans, was appointed as an associate judge in family court by the winner of the family court race—Julia Maldonado.
The appointment of Evans was historic—the first openly-gay Family Court judge in Texas. (A profile of Evans will be published in the February 2017 issue of OutSmart.)
Johnson, an assistant district attorney for the past 17 years, made history as the first openly-lesbian District Judge in Harris County. She was sworn into the District Criminal Court system.
Kirkland returned to the District Civil Court bench, after an absence of four years. He ran in 2012 and 2014, but ran up against campaigns of distortion that characterized him as an alcoholic. Kirkland has been transparent about this issue—which he conquered more than two decades ago. The campaigns were funded by an angry litigant against whom Kirkland ruled.
In addition, Democrats swept the top four countywide positions: openly-LGBT District Attorney Kim Ogg, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, County Attorney Vince Ryan, and Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett. All four sought and won the Caucus endorsement.
82 percent of the 51 Caucus-endorsed candidates won. The losses were in areas where positions are voted on by district, not countywide.
District Attorney Ogg was sworn in on January 1, 2017, at the historic and restored 1910 Harris County Courthouse. An hour later, 27 new members of the local judiciary were sworn in at the Ceremonial Court on 17th floor of the Harris County Civil Courthouse.
Democrats celebrated the stunning sweep at a special celebration and ceremonial swearing-in at NRG Park’s West Stadium Club on January 2, 2017. County Commissioner Rodney Ellis noted the vast diversity in the room—African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, LGBTs.
For a day that started out with a deluge of a downpour, the afternoon was sunny and bright. The smiles on faces matched the glow of the sun outside. Ellis noted that “Harris County was as stunned with the blue sweep as it was by the Clinton loss.” Clinton won the presidential vote in Harris County by over 160,000 votes — up from the 971 votes with which Obama took the county in 2012.
Many locals can remember when Republicans had a solid lock on Harris County positions—and the entire judiciary. Political experts analyzing the results offer various factors—changes in demographics, Clinton’s coattails, and a strong Hispanic rejection of Trump.
Houston GLBT Political Caucus President Fran Watson told OutSmart she is looking ahead to the 2018 midterms, and hopes to see a repeat of the blue sweep. “There are 12 family court and four probate court positions open during the next midterm, and we hope to win them all.”
Harris County Family Court, dominated by Republicans who have refused LGBT adoptions, has forced LGBTs to take their cases to Bexar or Dallas counties to get past the anti-LGBT discrimination. Watson feels the family and probate courts are the important courts to now get LGBT and LGBT-friendly candidates on to the bench.
In other court news, Barbara Hartle, the presiding judge of Municipal Court, has resigned to take a position in Ogg’s office. Also, openly-LGBT Harris County Democratic Party Chair Lane Lewis has stepped down after five years in the position.
Republicans still control the top Texas offices and the legislature. But formerly red Harris County has turned purple because of the 2016 general election. The 2018 midterms, which usually favor the party out of power in Washington, offer another opportunity for another blue sweep that could turn the county light blue.
And the local LGBT community now has more LGBT-friendly officials in Harris County than before. For Houstonians, the 2016 presidential loss has been buffered with a joyful blue sweep of their county, and a much more diverse local government.