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Gay Candidate Faces GOP Opponent Tied to Anti-LGBTQ Hate Groups

Jim Kovach takes on Erin Swanson in Harris County judicial race.

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Editor’s Note: This article is part of “Out for Change in 2018,” a monthly series on LGBTQ candidates in Texas, who were the subject of our January issue. For more, visit tinyurl.com/outforchange2018.


Jim Kovach’s motto is, “Life may not be fair, but judges should be.” 

Kovach, a 53-year-old attorney who is running as a Democrat for judge of Harris County Civil Court at Law No. 2, says he learned about fairness from his mother. He even tells their family Christmas story on the campaign trail. 

“I told her how I used a family Christmas story on the campaign trail,” Kovach says. “We were five kids, and we would all get a gift and an envelope with money in it. If one kid’s gift cost more than another’s, we would get the difference in cash because she wanted to be absolutely fair to each kid.

“She laughed when I told her that, and said I didn’t know the half of it,” Kovach adds. “Then she told me that at Easter she would open the jelly-bean packages and count out the colors so that each of us got the exact same amount of each color.”  

Erin Swanson

Kovach, who is openly gay, won the Democratic primary with 63 percent of the vote. In November, he will face anti-LGBTQ Republican Erin Swanson. Kovach says Swanson defeated GOP incumbent Theresa Chang in the Republican primary after Swanson’s supporters started a rumor that Chang “secretly performed gay weddings.”    

“The truth is that no Republican judges in Harris County do any weddings, because if they did, then they would have to perform same-sex weddings as well,” Kovach says. 

Swanson, who describes herself as “a pro-life, pro-family conservative,” didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story. Swanson’s campaign website boasts about “decades of involvement” in Concerned Women for America, which has been classified as an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. She also touts endorsements from at least two other anti-LGBTQ hate groups, the Conservative Republicans of Texas (CRT) and the Eagle Forum. The first endorsement listed on Swanson’s site under “community leaders” is from CRT president Steve Hotze, one of Houston’s top anti-LGBTQ activists. 

Kovach was born in Ohio, but his family moved to Kingwood when he was in high school. Flipping burgers at Fajita Flats in Austin, he put himself through undergraduate school at the University of Texas, where he earned a marketing degree. He then came home and graduated from the University of Houston Law Center. After moving to Chicago to work for Marshall Field’s department store, he finally came out.

“The truth is that no Republican judges in Harris County do any weddings, because if they did, then they would have to perform same-sex weddings as well.”

Jim Kovach

“In college, I didn’t know I was gay,” Kovach says. “I thought only hairdressers were gay, and I played sports and wanted to be a lawyer. In Chicago, I met these two friends who lived in my building. It turned out they were a gay couple, but they were both professionals. They told me I was gay, and I thought, ‘Oh, I am gay!’”

After moving home once again to practice law, Kovach became involved in Houston’s LGBTQ community. He served on the board of the old Montrose Clinic, and eventually became president of the board for Legacy Community Health, where he was heavily involved in fundraising. He also runs marathons and plays in the Montrose Softball League Association. 

Kovach has been married for two years to his longtime partner, Ben Montalbano.
The couple lives in the Rice Military area with their rescue dog, Roxie. They have a second home at Lake Livingston, where they enjoy water sports and Mexican food on Friday nights.

“We’ve been together 20 years,” Kovach says. “We met online and didn’t want a relationship; we just wanted to date. That went on for years until we realized we were actually in a relationship.” When Montalbano proposed, it was on a trip to Colorado where he used glitter in the snow to write, “Will You Marry Me?”

It was Montalbano who also suggested that Kovach run for office.

“I didn’t like what I was seeing in the courts,” he recalls. “There was one judge in a case who was so unfair to the other attorney, who was a black woman, that afterwards I kept apologizing to her for his rudeness. I came home and told Ben about it and told him I wasn’t sure I could keep doing this with the current judges, and he said, ‘Well, then why don’t you run for judge?’”

But Kovach says he thought long and hard before entering the race. 

“You have to give up a lot of things when running for judge,” he says. “You can’t endorse candidates, and then there’s all the negativity.”

Kovach says it was a conversation with Steven Kirkland, who became Harris County’s first openly gay district judge in 2008, that finally convinced him to run. After first being elected in 2008, Kirkland overcame bruising defeats in 2012 and 2014 before winning his current seat in 2018. Among other things, Kirkland’s opponents brought up his struggle with alcoholism, despite the fact that he’s been sober for 30 years. Kovach realized that if Kirkland could face those types of attacks and win, then so could he.

 “So far, it’s been a very positive experience,” Kovach says. 

“I’m used to fundraising, so I have no problem asking people for money. And everyone—from the friends of Legacy to the softball league—has been very supportive.”

During the primary, Kovach’s husband regularly attended events with him, and they even got their dog in on the act.

“We would dress our little white Maltipoo in her own little campaign T-shirt,” he laughs. “She was a big hit at the events. People always wanted to meet her and take her picture.”  

For more on Kovach’s campaign, visit KovachForJudge.com.

This article appears in the August 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine. 

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Marene Gustin

Marene Gustin has written about Texas culture, food, fashion, the arts, and Lone Star politics and crime for television, magazines, the web and newspapers nationwide, and worked in Houston politics for six years. Her freelance work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, Texas Monthly, Dance International, Dance Magazine, the Advocate, Prime Living, InTown magazine, OutSmart magazine and web sites CultureMap Houston and Austin, Eater Houston and Gayot.com, among others.
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