Attorney and former judge Jay Karahan has known Dr. Steven Hotze since the 1990s. And for just as long, he’s had firsthand experience of Hotze’s influence in Harris County politics.
The two had begun interacting in 1996, when Karahan was running for office and seeking Hotze’s endorsement.
“As I was moving up in Republican politics back then, it was made very clear to me that a Republican would not be able to become a judge unless they had Steven Hotze’s approval and blessing, if you will,” Karahan said.
It was an endorsement that never came — turns out, Karahan had served on the board of the United Republicans of Harris County with one of Hotze’s political foes.
Karahan lost his first Republican primary for District Court Judge, after Hotze backed his opponent, Mark Kent Ellis.
Such has been the power of Hotze, a physician and right wing activist who for years has been a force within conservative politics in the county and across the state. That influence has waxed and waned through the years, but nonetheless remains a presence today.
Last year was a busy one for Hotze, whoe sued unsuccessfully to overturn Gov. Greg Abbott’s order shutting down businesses due to COVID-19. And at the height of the protests after the murder of George Floyd, Hotze left a voicemail for the governor, via Abbott’s chief of staff: “I want to make sure that he has National Guard down here and they have the order to shoot to kill if any of these (expletive deleted) people start rioting like they have in Dallas, start tearing down businesses — shoot to kill the (expletive deleted). That’s the only way you restore order. Kill ’em. Thank you,” Hotze said on the recording.
As the November election neared, Hotze filed multiple lawsuits against Democratic Harris County officials for alleged vote fraud. Then, in mid-December, he alleged that Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg conspired to retaliate against him by arresting former Houston police captain Mark Aguirre, an investigator who had been working for Hotze. Aguirre allegedly pulled a driver over at gunpoint and then searched his truck, seeking hundreds of thousands of supposedly fraudulent ballots. The truck contained no such ballots. Hotze was outraged.
“Ogg’s arrest of Mark Aguirre [is] simply political retaliation for our successful efforts in disrupting the Democrats’ massive voter election fraud scheme in Harris County,” Hotze told reporters. He went further, accusing Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis and State Senator Borris Miles of masterminding the supposed vote fraud scheme. In neither case did he offer any proof of his charges.
So, where does Hotze’s influence come from?
The activist cut his teeth campaigning against LGBTQ rights in the 1980s. Houston held a referendum on whether to allow domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples in 1985, coinciding with the mayoral election.
Opponents ran a slate of candidates called the “‘Straight Slate.”
“This was an anti-gay approach to city politics, and they wanted to lessen the impact of the gay community, and Steven Hotze was the chair of that group,” political analyst Nancy Sims said.
Hotze’s first campaign failed – the benefits referendum passed handily – but it made his reputation. He built that into his earliest efforts to influence judicial primaries.
Houston Public Media reached out to Hotze for this story, but he didn’t respond.
Conservative activist Mary Jane Smith, who has known Hotze since childhood, called him “a strong pro-lifer, strong social conservative.”
“His intentions in originally forming his (political action committees) was on target,” she said. “He wanted to say, ‘who were the conservative judges?’ And I was one of those people he would call and ask, ‘who are the good guys, who are wearing the white hats?'”
Hotze branched out from Harris County politics into campaigns for state offices. As he did, his expenses grew, but so did his fundraising. Smith, once Hotze’s ally, parted company with him over his fundraising methods.
“If you go to the Texas Ethics Commission and you look at his Conservative Republicans of Harris County, Conservative Republicans of Texas, at their financial reports, you can see who’s giving him the money. It’s overwhelmingly candidates and elected officials,” Smith said. “And that’s wrong, that a political action committee…that endorses in a Republican primary or in a general election, is able to basically pick who’s going to win the primary.”
A search through state records shows thousands of dollars in donations from the campaigns of Republican state lawmakers and county officials. Hotze uses the money not only to fund lawsuits but to publish lists of preferred candidates, which he mass-mails to Republican voters.
Former party and elected officials say his endorsement carried a lot of weight when the GOP dominated Harris County politics. Hotze may have reached the height of his influence in the years between 2002 and 2014, when his ally Jared Woodfill chaired the Harris County Republican Party.
But that changed as Democrats increasingly won elections.
“I think (Hotze’s) influence has waned a lot over the years,” said Paul Simpson, who became the county Republican Party chairman by beating Woodfill. “When his sidekick (Woodfill) ceased to be county chair in 2014, when I became county chair, then the two of them really ceased to be involved in the party as such at all.”
After Woodfill fell from power, Hotze turned his attention to repealing the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, also known as HERO, a citywide antidiscrimination measure to protect LGBTQ individuals. The activist began a media campaign against the ordinance, and gathered signatures for a referendum. Then, in a reversal of the 1985 fight, county residents overwhelmingly voted to repeal HERO in 2015.
But it’s an open question how much of that fell to Hotze’s influence.
“There were a lot of people involved with fighting the HERO ordinance,” Simpson said. “I think he wanted to take all the credit for it, but I think the pastors played a huge role, and the Republican Party played a significant role. He wanted to pretend nobody else did, but that’s not true.”
Hotze tried several times to regain power in the local GOP by backing opponents to Simpson. Last year, he finally succeeded, ousting Simpson in favor of Keith Nielsen.
But Nielsen resigned in disgrace after just a few months, in the wake of a racist Facebook post juxtaposing a Martin Luther King Jr. quote with a banana. The county party replaced Hotze’s latest ally with Cindy Siegel.
“I think that with Cindy Siegel taking the helm, once again we have some sanity back in the Harris County GOP, at least in the leadership,” said Matthew Wiltshire, national committeeman for the Texas Young Republicans. “And I don’t think that it’s likely that Steve Hotze has much influence there.”
Wiltshire said Hotze’s brand of social conservatism – particularly his anti-LGBTQ crusades – alienates younger Republican voters.
“Young conservatives who are focused on individual freedom, individual liberty, economics, foreign policy issues, and gun rights, really have a very different perspective than he does, particularly on social issues,” Wiltshire said.
But Wiltshire added that Hotze will likely continue to sway older conservative voters as long as he’s able to bring in the money.
“He’s still going to be a powerful force for the next few years while people like my parents still get those letters and they still look at them and are at the very least influenced if not necessarily swayed by them,” Wiltshire said.