Harris County GOP Judge Says He Was Ousted Over Gay Weddings
Jay Karahan blames anti-LGBTQ ‘pay-to-play’ voter guides for primary defeat.
By Brandon Wolf
Arespected, longtime Republican judge in Harris County says he lost his GOP primary because he followed the law under Obergefell v. Hodges and officiated at same-sex weddings.
Judge Jay Karahan, who has presided over County Criminal Court No. 8 for the last 16 years, blamed voter guides published by right-wing activists for his defeat on March 6.
The right-wing voter guides, commonly referred to as “slates,” are distributed in the form of glossy magazines by the likes of Steven Hotze and his Conservative Republicans of Texas, which is considered an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Republican candidates who take out advertisements in the guides are typically given favorable treatment, in a system known as “pay to play.”
“As a judge, I followed the law. As a candidate, I spoke the truth. Today, as a man, I stand on high ground with hope and gratitude,” Karahan wrote on social media following his defeat.
In an essay published March 12 by Big Jolly Politics, a local news website, Karahan wrote that “certain special-interest groups in Harris County have long influenced judicial elections according to their narrow interests.”
“Each campaign season, these special interests become ‘pay-to-play,’ mostly for-profit ‘slates’ that send ballot recommendations to many thousands of voters,” Karahan wrote. “These publications often contain fake news: misleading information, exaggerations, and half-truths.”
He added that publishers of the slates “have arrogantly anointed themselves ‘judge-makers.”
Karahan lost to challenger Don Simons, who reportedly was handpicked by conservative activists, by a margin of 86,993 votes to 36,085. Simons was endorsed in three right-wing voter guides, including Hotze’s. Thirty percent of Harris County GOP voters did not complete the 20-page primary ballot, skipping over judicial races and making them more susceptible to influence by right-wing activists.
The voter guides utilize colors and logos that could be mistaken for official Harris County Republican Party (HCRP) materials. The sample ballots can be removed and taken into polling places.
In addition to Hotze’s Conservative Republicans of Harris County publication, Gary Polland publishes Texas Conservative Review and Terry Lowry produces Links Letter. The HCRP has censured the publications numerous times, and the main page of the party’s website features a warning about them.
Marco Roberts, president of Log Cabin Republicans Houston, said Karahan—a straight ally and longtime member of the gay GOP group—was targeted solely for his decision to officiate at same-sex weddings.
“What this tells us is that these ‘slates,’ which misleadingly market themselves as ‘official’ guides, giving unsuspecting voters the impression that they come from the Republican Party, have a disproportionate impact on judicial races where voters are not familiar with the candidates,” Roberts said, adding that “despite our best efforts, even gay Republicans were spotted taking these guides into the polling booth.”
Karahan was one of two incumbent Republican judges targeted for officiating at same-sex weddings. Precinct 5, Place 2 justice of the peace Jeff Williams was forced into a runoff against challenger Mike Wolfe.
While Polland’s guide simply indicated the candidates he favored, Hotze included an asterisk next to the names of Karahan and Williams to indicate that they “support the homosexual political movement.”
Lowry, meanwhile, wrote below Karahan’s name that he “performs gay weddings.” Below Williams’ name, Lowry wrote: “Asked [Harris County Commissioner] Steve Raddack for a temporary chapel for (gay) weddings after the Harvey flood.”
Wolfe took out a full-page ad in Lowry’s Links Letter, which typically sell for $15,000. Williams did not purchase an ad.
While Karahan supports same-sex marriage, Williams has said that he opposes it, but believes in following the rule of law. Williams declined a request for an interview from OutSmart.
Judges in Texas are not required to officiate at weddings. However, if they refuse to officiate at same-sex weddings, they must also turn away heterosexual couples.
A December Houston Chronicle article explained Williams’ alleged “gay wedding tent.” When Williams’ courtroom was flooded by Tropical Storm Harvey, he and his staff were moved to temporary quarters. A storage room became a conference room that was used for any proceedings requiring privacy, and was the most appropriate venue for weddings.
In an interview with OutSmart, Karahan described the 2018 primary as “real dog-whistle politics.” But he said he has no regrets.
“I’ve had a great 16 years working in the people’s courtroom, and now I’m turning it back to the people,” he said, adding that he finds the state of the local GOP “dismaying.”
Karahan plans to be in the Log Cabin Republicans tent during the 2018 Houston Pride Festival. He said he will marry any couple with a valid Harris County marriage license at no cost. He will be wearing a name tag that says “Jay Karahan,” with an asterisk next to it. In small letters beneath his name, the tag will indicate that the asterisk means he “follows the law and discriminates against no one.”
This article appears in the April 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.