Once the clear underdog in the race for one of Harris County’s most powerful positions, voting rights champion and ethics reformer Ben Chou has gained enough steam to spook the favorite.
As we approach Tuesday’s primary runoff in Harris County, the most-watched race in Texas is speeding toward a contentious finish.
Lesley Briones, originally the odds-on favorite for Precinct 4 Harris County Commissioner, is in damage control mode after running a racist ad against upstart candidate Ben Chou. Briones’ ad photoshopped Chou against a brick prison wall and doctored his facial features, particularly his eyes and mouth. The backlash was immediate, as voters across various constituencies denounced the advertisement. The fact that it’s AAPI Heritage month has only amplified the issue.
The Briones Campaign’s response was to temporarily stop running the ad, but then also paradoxically push out a defiant and bizarre press release that was nothing short of unhinged. Briones spent two sentences of the release blaming her graphic designer, claiming that the designer had “used a Photoshop filter.” Of course, even if the designer made the original image edit, Briones and her multimillion-dollar campaign consultant Grant Martin still would have had to approve it. The buck stops with the candidate, not a freelancer trying to make ends meet; campaign staffers are not human shields.
She also claimed the ad was taken down after the campaign was “notified”… but in this case, “notified” really means receiving a backlash from the voters. And she put the ads back up, anyway.
In the five days since that release hit the news, the national press has picked up on the story, turning up the heat on Briones. LGBTQ Victory Fund has been out in front in criticizing Briones, telling The Advocate’s Trudy Ring that “This racist attack against Ben — who would be the first out LGBTQ Asian American elected to Harris County government — is disgusting and morally reprehensible. At a time when the Asian American and Pacific Islander community is the target of an unprecedented surge in attacks, it is not only hateful but dangerous. Anyone who peddles in racism and bigotry is clearly unfit for office.”
Even organizations that initially backed Briones are denouncing her. In a statement hot off the presses, the GBLT Caucus said, “We implore Lesley to publicly apologize to Ben and his campaign for use of this ad, and encourage all candidates to focus on the issues and demonstrate that they will be the best candidate to work for the common good of all of us and especially with uplifting and addressing the issues of marginalized communities. Racism has no place in our society and therefore should not have a place in politics.”
The Full Story
The Briones Campaign’s desperate scramble to make up for its racist hit job must be understood in the context of the whole campaign. Chou comes from a background of good governance. He designed the blueprint for drive-through voting in Harris County and made it happen under former county clerk (now mayoral candidate) Chris Hollins. Throughout the campaign, Chou has taken aim at pay-for-play politics in Harris County, a political position pioneered by none other than Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.
Briones, who was handpicked by two county commissioners to replace Bill Mcleod as a civil court judge in 2019, was endorsed immediately by those same commissioners when she announced that she would run for the seat. She has hauled in cash from politicians, billionaire John Arnold (for whose foundation she was once COO), county vendors, and even lawyers in whose favor she ruled as a sitting judge.
In other words, the reason Briones pushed out a racist image of Chou was because Chou told the truth about her.
She didn’t like it.
We’ll see how the voters feel.
Daniel J. Cohen is a progressive Harris county activist who believes in justice, transparency, and democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @mrdancohen.
SET YOUR REMINDER: Be a part of the civil debate on many issues. Watch and Participate on Politics Done Right every day at 3:00 PM Central/4:00 PM Eastern at “ politicsdoneright.tv.”