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Russ Ridgway

Where the primary action is

It’s on the Democratic side in Harris County. This should come as a surprise to no one.

The crowded Harris County Democratic primary field reflects a new reality in Houston politics: With the county turning an even darker shade of blue in 2018, many consider the real battle for countywide seats to be the Democratic primaries, leading more candidates to take on incumbent officeholders.

“This is the new political landscape of Harris County. Countywide offices are won and lost in the Democratic Primary,” said Ogg campaign spokesperson Jaime Mercado, who argued that Ogg’s 2016 win “signaled a monumental shift in county politics” and created renewed emphasis on criminal justice reform now championed by other Democratic officials and Ogg’s opponents.

In the March 3 primaries, Ogg, Bennett, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and County Attorney Vince Ryan — all Democrats — face at least two intra-party opponents each, while Democratic Commissioner Rodney Ellis has a primary challenger in former state district judge Maria Jackson.

Excluding state district and county courts, 10 of 14 Harris County Democratic incumbents have at least one primary foe. In comparison, three of the seven county GOP incumbents — Justice of the Peace Russ Ridgway, Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman and education department trustee Don Sumners — have drawn primary challengers.

At the state level, Republicans from the Harris County delegation largely have evaded primary opponents better than Democrats. All but three GOP state representatives — Dan Huberty, Briscoe Cain and Dennis Paul — are unopposed.

On the Democratic side, state Sen. Borris Miles and state Reps. Alma Allen, Jarvis Johnson, Senfronia Thompson, Harold Dutton, Shawn Thierry and Garnet Coleman each have primary opponents.

Overall, the 34 Democratic incumbents seeking re-election to federal, state and county seats that cover at least a portion of Harris County — not including state district and county courts — face 43 primary opponents. The 22 Republican incumbents have 10 intra-party challengers.

It should be noted that a few of these races always draw a crowd. Constable Precincts 1, 2, 3, and 6 combined for 22 candidates in 2012, 21 candidates in 2016, and 17 this year. Three of the four countywide incumbents – DA Kim Ogg, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, and Tax Assessor Ann Harris Bennett – are in their first term, as is County Commissioner Rodney Ellis. There are fewer Republican incumbents to target, so Dem incumbents get to feel the heat. The bigger tell to me is that Republicans didn’t field candidates in nine District Court races. As I’ve said ad nauseum, it’s the judicial races that are the best indicator of partisan strength in a given locale.

The story also notes that the usual ideological holy war in HD134 is on hold this year – Greg Abbott has endorsed Sarah Davis instead of trying to primary her out, and there’s no Joe Straus to kick around. Republicans do have some big races of their own – CD07, CD22, HD26, HD132, HD138, County Commissioner Precinct 3 – but at the countywide level it’s kind of a snoozefest. Honestly, I’d have to look up who most of their candidates are, their names just haven’t registered with me. I can’t wait to see what the finance reports have to say. The basic point here is that we’re in a new normal. I think that’s right, and I think we’ll see more of the same in 2022. Get used to it.

Endorsement watch: The early work continues

The Chron continues its way-early rollout of general election endorsements by giving their blessing to four Justice of the Peace candidates.

HarrisCounty

Justice of the Peace, Precinct 1, Place 1: Eric William Carter

The Democratic candidate Eric William Carter, 33, is our choice to replace vacating Judge Dale Gorczynski. This quick yet soft-spoken graduate of South Texas College of Law has the professional credentials and temperament to run this people’s court. An approachable demeanor is particularly important in a venue where many of the litigants are representing themselves. Carter promises to work with the community to develop a teen court to interest young people in the justice system and to educate them about how it works.

Justice of the Peace Precinct 3,Place 1: Joe Stephens

We traditionally view a law license as a prerequisite to serving as a justice of the peace, but Galena ISD School Board Trustee Joe Stephens has earned our endorsement because of his commitment to his community, his support from the outgoing judge and his opponent’s problems with legal ethics.

Justice of the Peace, Precinct 4, Place 1: Lincoln Goodwin

Republican Lincoln Goodwin – appointed to this bench in December 2014 by Commissioners Court – deserves a full elected term.

Justice of the Peace Precinct 5, Place 1: William “Bill” McLeod

Our vote for this bench goes to the only lawyer in the race: William “Bill” McLeod, a former special needs counselor who graduated from Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law. This court encompasses west Harris County and deserves a judge who is a licensed lawyer in good standing with the State Bar of Texas.

Well, that answers the question I asked last week about whether the Chron was legitimately starting early on endorsements. I think we can expect a regular schedule of these from now on, which is cool. That should allow for more focus on individual races. Good for them for being this organized.

As for the endorsements themselves, Stephens and McLeod are also Democrats. McLeod’s opponent is an incumbent, Russ Ridgway. The precinct in question is definitely Republican – I have 2008 data on it here – but not so much that it couldn’t be competitive in a year like this. These endorsements represent half of the JP races on the ballot this fall, though these are the only contested ones. Democrats have incumbents in precincts 2, 6, and 7, while a Republican presides in precinct 8.

Getting back into the marriage game

It was too good to stay away.

Two Harris County justices of the peace have resumed officiating weddings this week after a brief hiatus in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on marriage equality.

Judges Russ Ridgway and Jeff Williams stopped marrying couples after the high court on June 26 legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, striking down the remaining bans in Texas and a dozen other states.

These two judges, who preside in the western outposts of the county, were among three of 16 sitting Harris County justices of the peace who opted to take down their shingles for weddings last summer. The third judge, Laryssa Korduba, a Republican who serves out of Humble, has remained off duty with respect to weddings, her staff said this week.

None of the three judges responded to multiple requests for comment on their rationale.

However, Judge Mike Parrott, a fellow justice of the peace, said Korduba told the other JPs she did not wish to marry same-sex couples, but Parrott never heard an explanation from Ridgway or Williams. Given heavy foot traffic in their offices and the number of walk-in requests they would have received, Parrott found it notable that his colleagues would pass on the income they would have earned.

“It really surprised me about Russ (Ridgway) and (Jeff) Williams,” Parrott said. “That’s a big population out there. Maybe they don’t need the money.”

Parrott said he understood the likely reason they changed their minds after a short moratorium. “I got a feeling it’s extra income.”

JPs in busy courts might do as many as 10 weddings a day and up to 20 or so on Valentine’s Day, Parrott said.

See here for the background. JPs are paid between $50 and $400 to perform a wedding, so that would be a significant piece of income to give up for one’s principles. Which, to be clear, is 100% their right and which I support. JPs are allowed to perform weddings but don’t have to, and as long as they’re consistent and not picking and choosing, it’s all good. Happy marrying, y’all.

Does your JP still do marriages?

Some do and some don’t.

RedEquality

Last Wednesday, Judge Dale Gorczynski, a justice of the peace in Harris County, heard 19 eviction cases, sent 147 traffic and misdemeanor cases to trial and presided over five weddings: Three for same-sex couples and two for heterosexual couples.

It was the first time gay couples outnumbered straight ones in his north Houston office. The judge estimated that during the two peak wedding season months since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage about 10 to 20 percent of the couples he has married are gay or lesbian.

But that trend is not playing out with at least three of the county’s 16 justices of the peace who previously performed weddings but no longer do. Judges Laryssa Korduba, Russ Ridgway and Jeff Williams, all Republicans who officiated weddings prior to the decision, are taking down their shingles, although they have done so gradually. These judges, who operate in Humble, near Bellaire and Addicks, still adjudicate criminal, civil and traffic proceedings, but despite phone prompts and online links at their offices that indicate otherwise, marrying couples is no longer among services they offer, staff members confirmed last week.

Korduba performed her last ceremony Aug. 7, according to the county clerk’s data through Aug. 20. That data shows that Ridgway last officiated Aug. 11; and Williams held his last wedding Aug. 14. The county clerk, Stan Stanart, said Tuesday these JPs performed weddings after the Supreme Court ruling, but in a limited capacity. Stanart said Ridgway told him, “I had these commitments beforehand.” The others made similar comments: “That’s what Laryssa [Korduba] told me, too, and Jeff [Williams]. They had commitments. They booked them up beforehand. But there are no new bookings. That’s what I’ve been told at this time,” Stanart said.

[…]

To be clear, these JPs will not be breaking the law or shirking their duties by halting weddings, legal experts say. In fact, they are opting to forego thousands of dollars of personal income, based on the rates they charged in recent months. Justices of the peace may keep this income. They have complete discretion to set their rates. Costs range from $50 to $400 per ceremony.

Although the Ohio Supreme Court issued an opinion this month stating judges may not refuse to perform marriages altogether based on personal, moral or religious objections to same sex marriage, officiating weddings in Texas is a choice.

In other words, all JPs in Texas may marry same-sex couples, but the law does not oblige them to marry anyone, according to Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan.

As far as turning away same-sex couples, Ryan said, “As long as they are not doing any weddings they can make that choice. If they do any marriages, they have to do all the marriages.”

Rebecca L. Robertson, legal and policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, agreed: If you choose to opt out of marrying all couples, that is perfectly legal. If you marry anyone, you may not discriminate, she said.

“If they feel this strongly, at least they’re being fair about it,” said Lane Lewis, chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party, adding he thought, “They are on the wrong side of history.”

Daniel Williams, spokesman for the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender rights group Texas Wins, said he applauded judges who abstained from marrying anyone if their personal beliefs guided them to pick and chose who to marry.

“To the JP who says, ‘In order to follow the law, I need to set aside the optional power of my office to perform weddings,’ Kudos.”

I agree. I’m glad that at least around here none of the JPs have tried to be jerks in the way that some county clerks were, to their detriment. I think they’re missing out – my dad was a judge for 14 years in New York, and he always says that performing marriages was the best part of the job – but it’s their choice. I sincerely hope some of them come to the realization that they’re no better off this way and get themselves back in the game. Everyone would benefit if they do.