12.09.09

Will Houston Make Gay History?

Annise Parker could make Houston the largest American city ever to elect an openly gay mayor. But first she has to overcome a last-ditch effort by anti-gay activists to derail her campaign.

Gay-rights advocates, coming off stinging defeats of same-sex marriage legislation in New York and Maine, could get a boost this week in—of all places—deep red Texas.

With a small lead in the polls, openly gay Houston City Controller Annise Parker could win the city’s mayoral race this weekend. A victory would put the Democrat in charge of the fourth-largest municipality in the country and make Houston by far the most populous city ever to elect an openly gay mayor. But to secure a win, Parker must beat back a last-ditch anti-gay campaign engineered by a Texas fundamentalist who is backing her opponent, African-American fellow Democrat Gene Locke.

Parker’s candidacy has already attracted the ire of a number of social conservatives, with some even pledging organized efforts to derail her campaign. Dave Welch, the executive director of the Houston Area Pastors Council, which includes some 200 pastors, recently told the Houston Chronicle: “National gay and lesbian activists see this as a historic opportunity. The reality is that’s because they’re promoting an agenda which we believe to be contrary to the concerns of the community and destructive to the family.” One local anti-gay activist, electrician Dave Wilson, sent out 35,000 mailers depicting Parker taking the oath of office with her longtime partner and asking recipients, “Is this the image Houston wants to portray?”

With Republicans a key swing vote and turnout difficult to predict, social conservatives could prove influential in determining the winner.

National gay-rights groups and gay news outlets have followed the campaign closely in recent weeks and have drawn attention to homophobic efforts to damage Parker’s candidacy.

“It’s important on a national level because she will be representing a city that has more people than 15 states,” Michael Mitchell, the executive director of the Stonewall Democrats, which endorsed Parker, told The Daily Beast. He added: “The politics of fear always gets people riled up one way or the other. I don’t know what the good voters of Houston will ultimately decide, but my guess is they’ll see through that and go for the best qualified candidate.”

Houston has a nonpartisan runoff system, and Parker and Locke, a former city attorney, emerged as the two surviving candidates from the general election last month. With little substantive disagreement on policy, the two have sought to distinguish themselves by their résumés and expertise. Locke describes himself as a law and order candidate who’ll protect the police from budget cuts, while Parker emphasizes her experience as city controller and business background in Houston’s oil industry as evidence of a responsible financial approach.

“There’s not a lot of daylight on the issues,” Parker told The Daily Beast in a phone interview. “It’s competence and character and experience.”

Perhaps because of the lack of clear distinction on policy, Parker’s orientation has become the most talked-about issue in the press in the final stretch of the campaign, thanks to a social conservative leader, Steven Hotze, who has weighed in on the race in Locke’s favor. With Republicans a key swing vote and turnout difficult to predict, social conservatives could prove influential in determining the winner.

Hotze played a key role in a particularly ugly period for gay politics in Houston two decades ago. In 1985, he organized a self-proclaimed “Straight Slate” of eight candidates running for city council that drew national attention for its opposition to anti-discrimination laws for gays in the workplace. That year, former Houston Mayor Louie Welch sought to reclaim his old office and made his activism against gay rights central to his candidacy. In a televised debate shortly before the election, Welch, unaware his microphone was live, said his plan to contain AIDS was “to shoot the queers.” While both the “Straight Slate” candidates and Welch lost, Hotze developed a reputation as a kingmaker in Republican primaries for his popularity among social conservatives.

Anti-gay campaigns like the “Straight Slate” helped push Parker into activism. She described herself as a “fly on the wall” in local politics until she volunteered in 1979 for the campaign of Eleanor Tinsley, who overcame attacks over an endorsement by the Gay Political Caucus to become Houston’s first female city council member.

“It was my first taste of what that kind of politicking case was like,” Parker said. “So I spent the next 20 years volunteering for other local candidates, not as a professional but as someone who cared about politics.”

Over time, Parker’s chief cause shifted from gay rights to local issues, and she took leadership positions with a number of civic organizations. She told The Daily Beast that she consciously tried to change the emphasis in the press on her credentials as a gay activist after losing a city council race in 1995 in which she felt the role largely defined her. She won a seat on the council two years later. Her official biography today mentions that she serves on the advisory board of the Montrose Counseling Center, a LGBT organization, and highlights her partner of 19 years, Kathy Hubbard, and their two children, but overall focuses almost entirely on local issues.

Now the battles over gay rights of decades past may threaten her mayoral prospects today. Locke met with Hotze earlier in the race, and recently the anti-gay activist sent out mailers endorsing Locke—despite his endorsement of expanding work benefits for same-sex couples—and noting that Parker is backed by the “Gay Lesbian political action committee.” Asked in a recent debate whether he would repudiate the endorsement, Locke said he opposes “bigotry” but did not reject Hotze’s support, saying he would accept backing from those who think he is “the best candidate” based on his overall record. Locke’s finance chairman and another finance committee member of his campaign, meanwhile, donated a combined $40,000 to Hotze’s organization shortly before the mailers endorsing Locke went out, The Houston Chronicle reports.

Locke’s campaign has denied any coordination with Hotze, and the campaign did not respond to requests for comment or an interview from The Daily Beast. In a statement to the Associated Press, a spokeswoman for the candidate said he “is disappointed and wishes that [finance chair] Ned Holmes had not made that contribution…Gene Locke has fought against bigotry his entire life and knows that there is no place for it in this campaign and this city.”

“For a guy [Hotze] whose whole career has been based on divisive and ugly personal attacks, who has a 25-year anti-gay record—that suggests to me that would be an endorsement people do not want,” Parker said.

In a mayoral race that is blurring ordinary partisan lines—as two middle-of-the-road Democratic candidates, one a gay woman and the other a black man, compete for conservative, Republican votes to put them over the edge—whether Hotze’s endorsement will influence a significant number of voters is unclear.

Robert Stein, a professor of political science at Rice University, said race, gender, and sexual orientation likely will take a backseat in undecided Republican voters’ minds to pocketbook issues, especially given that Parker is already a well-known figure after 12 years in elected office.

Voters are “mostly worried about who will take care of their property taxes,” Stein said.

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.