HOUSTON—A Harris County Civil Court judge says he is disappointed that a series of radio and robo-call campaign ads by a well-funded opponent are targeting his drunk driving arrests that happened three decades ago.
“The nature of this ad is just flabbergasting to me,” State District Court Judge Steven Kirkland told KHOU 11 News.
The radio ads, by Elaine Palmer, his challenger in the Democratic primary for the 215th Civil Court, appeared this week on Houston radio stations.
One version is in the form of a fake news “breaking news” report and announces that the judge has been arrested for DWI. Another is narrated by a woman claiming to be the victim of a drunk driver.
“Judge Steven Kirkland has been convicted twice and served time in jail for drunk driving,” she says in the ad. “We cannot re-elect a man with so little disregard for the pain drunk driving can bring to our families.”
“It’s offensive because of a deliberate attempt to mislead people,” said Kirkland.
Kirkland, 51, says he has been open throughout his career in public service about his DWI history. He was first arrested in 1982 at the age of 21. He recorded a second DWI in 1984. No one was injured in either incident. He says the arrests triggered a change in his life that led to a career in law, service as a municipal court judge, and in 2008 election to his current office in the Harris County Civil Courthouse.
On his campaign Facebook page he announced that on May 17, 2012, he celebrated his 28th year of sobriety.
“This year, my primary opponent has decided to dredge up mistakes I made before I quit drinking, as if it were news. It is not news and I need to tell my friends and people who care about me that my sobriety is intact,” he says in the Facebook post. “I will not let cheap campaign tricks jeopardize the serenity I have found with sobriety.”
“But it’s really offensive to me that someone who would want to be a judge would mislead people in such a way, particularly on an issue that’s so important to us,” said Kirkland.
“I’ve been a public official now for ten years and I’ve been very open about who I am and the journey I’ve come through and this is part of who I am,” said Kirkland.
KHOU 11 News attempted to reach Elaine Palmer for comment on her ad campaign but she declined our request for an interview. Instead campaign spokesperson Pierre Fletcher offered comment over the phone.
“We think voters should know who they are electing”, said Fletcher. “We believe the ads are relevant. We will air the ads as long as the radio stations let us run them.”
“Well I must say I was stunned,” said KHOU 11 Political Analyst and Rice University Professor Bob Stein. Stein is among hundreds of Houstonians who received the same campaign message via automated campaign phone calls.
“Just like the Mitt Romney advertisement when he may have roughed up a fellow student in prep school when he was 16 or 17, is this something that we judge a person on?” questioned Stein.
Kirkland’s supporters also questioned why Palmer joined the race against the Democratic incumbent. Houston Attorney George Fleming is identified in campaign finance disclosure documents as the largest contributor to Palmer’s campaign. Contributions from his law firm and his political action committee Texas for Good Leaders, total $35,000. Fleming recently lost a decision in Kirkland’s courtroom. In a lawsuit against a major pharmaceutical company Fleming’s firm collected more than $40 million in fees. His former clients sued saying they had been charged more than firm promised. Kirkland’s decision, setting a limit on how much in fees the firm could collect, could cost Fleming’s law firm as much as $13 million.
“There’s no question in my mind that Judge Kirkland would never have had a primary opponent had not Ms. Palmer found what we will call a patron saint,” said Stein. “An African American female opponent, knowing that black voters are disproportionately Democratic primary voters in an extremely low turnout race which is heavily mail in and early voting, there’s a real chance this attorney will succeed,” said Stein.
The candidate who wins the Democratic primary for 215th Civil District Court will face Republican candidate Ken Shortreed.