An openly gay, married, licensed social worker and U.S. Army veteran who is running in the March 1 primary as a Democratic candidate for Texas House District 73 said he was on the receiving end of homophobic slurs at Monday’s New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce candidate forum at the Brauntex Theatre.
Justin Calhoun said while preparing to speak with voters he used the restroom and was called a “Democrat f*ggot.” When he returned to the forum, his campaign literature was separated from other candidates’ materials and found discarded in and behind a trash can.
When he went to his car to retrieve replacement materials, Calhoun said the vehicle was boxed in. He left the event, sponsored by the chamber’s alumni group, without participating.
In a statement issued today, the candidate said he knows the actions of a few do not reflect the views of most Comal County residents but is worried about an “emerging pattern of intimidation targeting Democratic candidates and groups in rural Texas.”
Calhoun said a representative from New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce emailed him last night to apologize and followed up with a phone call this morning. He believes the Chamber may have identified a suspect in the incident.
“This isn’t something they want at their events,” he said in an interview with MyCanyonLake.com. “It’s supposed to be a nonpartisan, respectful place for candidates and they were upset that this took place.”
New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce President Jonathan Packer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Calhoun describes New Braunfels as his hometown, a place where he feels safe despite phone calls from strangers telling him to “go back to California” even though he is a ninth-generation Texan.
“To be frank, I had not felt unsafe since serving in Afghanistan,” he said. On Twitter, he said growing up gay in Texas has made him fully aware of how fear can control and silence people.
“We cannot allow them to have that power over us anymore,” he said. “Our kids, teachers, BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and women deserve a Texas they can be proud of and feel safe in…This attempt to discourage other Democrats and me across the state from running will not work. We aren’t going anywhere.”
In his statement, he cited two other incidents as proof of a growing trend towards violence and intimidation against rural Texas Democrats.
On Jan. 11 a woman used a shovel to smash in the door of Comal County’s Democratic party headquarters in New Braunfels. She was identified by New Braunfels police as 38-year-old New Braunfels resident Rhonda Riedel, who was already in jail for throwing rocks at cars when police issued a warrant for her arrest in the door-smashing incident.
However, because she was jailed in Guadalupe County, law enforcement there did not make the connection and she was released on a $500 personal-recognizance bond.
City of New Braunfels Media Relations Coordinator David Ferguson did not immediately respond to a request for information about the status of the investigation. According to online records, Riedel is not in Comal County jail and no charges were officially filed.
Comal County Democratic Party Chair Marilyn Aden said officials still don’t know if that attack was random or deliberately targeted Democrats.
She said Democrats have reported no further incidents at their headquarters, although during the last election people would open the same door Riedel later smashed and shout derogatory comments at volunteers. They also parked their trucks outside to intimidate people coming and going from the building.
Monday’s incident is a “concern,” Aden said.
“I’m hoping it’s not a trend, but it’s been a little bit more contentious in recent history,” she said.
Calhoun said the second incident involved the New Braunfels Trump Train, whose members tried to run Biden/Harris campaign bus off the road on I-35 between New Braunfels and San Marcos in October 2020.
In addition to these incidents, two other candidates running to represent Comal County, one a Hispanic woman and the other an openly gay man, also have been harassed during this election cycle, he said.
Claudia Zapata, who is running for Texas’ 21st U.S. Congressional District as a Democrat, on Twitter condemned the attack on Calhoun.
“There’s no other way to put this, but resorting to violence to defend your party affiliation is the sloppiest, easiest and most-Neanderthal defense you could have,” she said. “Party affiliations are not that serious, y’all.”
Democrat Coy Branscum, running for Texas’ 21st U.S. Congressional District, also took to Twitter to publicly condemn Monday’s actions.
“The queer community has long been the subject of violent attacks motivated by rage and fear, but we’re not going anywhere,” he posted. “Please join me in condemning this act of hate. Integrity doesn’t have to be partisan.”
Cherif Gacis, also running as a Democrat for District 21, appealed to “the better angels of our character. I stand with @JustinDCalhoun on this.”
Meanwhile, Calhoun is calling for leaders on both sides of the aisle to speak out against hatred and division in the political system. He knows many Republicans also find this kind of behavior “deplorable.”
“The only way to heal our community and move forward is to continue to show up and connect with voters on the issues that matter most,” he said in his statement. “I know the people of Comal County are good people, and the actions of a few do not speak for all. This morning’s incident was alarming and unsettling, but it hasn’t deterred me from my mission of providing House District 73 the representation and leadership they deserve.”
Calhoun’s platform prioritizes veterans, education and infrastructure investments for rural communities statewide.