Houston Makes History By Electing Gay Mayor

by Paul Hogarth on December 14, 2009

After recent losses in Maine and the New York Senate, the LGBT community needed an electoral victory. And it happened – of all places – in Texas. On December 12, Houston became the largest U.S. city to elect an openly gay Mayor – as Annise Parker scored a 53-47 victory over her opponent, Gene Locke. The City Controller stressed her budget experience and fiscal competence, and never planned to make her sexuality an issue. The election was significant in other ways because Parker was the first Houston Mayor in a generation not handpicked by the business community. But Parker’s status as a lesbian played a role and galvanized the LGBT community, after she became subject to hateful anti-gay attacks by Republican operatives. And her opponent, an African-American Democrat, never repudiated such support. What this proves is the effectiveness of such tactics are on the wane. And if the Right believes they can make common cause with the black community by exploiting homophobia, they are sorely mistaken.

It has become gospel among social conservatives – such as the National Organization for Marriage – that this largely white, Republican movement can expand its base by working with the African-American community. Citing the (debunked) exit poll data that 70% of blacks in California voted for Proposition 8, they hope to exploit homophobia by driving a wedge in the progressive community. And the Houston mayoral run-off between two Democrats – a black man and a white lesbian – offered them a chance to try it out.

With Republicans being the “swing vote” in this election, both candidates did what they could to reach out. Parker talked about her years as the City Controller, proving to moderate “fiscal conservative” voters that she could be trusted to handle their money. Locke stressed his endorsement from the police officers union, portraying himself as a “tough on crime” candidate. But the cue also went out to right-wing social conservatives.

In mid-November, local Republican operative Dave Wilson – who several years ago led a successful referendum to defeat city employee benefits for gay partners – sent out an offensive mailing against Parker that asked: “is this the image Houston wants to portray?” He was soon followed by local operative Steven Hotze – who once ran a “Straight slate” of City Council candidates.

It didn’t take long for the word to spread to a more national audience. Rick Scarborough, who runs the organization Vision America and has appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live, sent out a disturbing e-mail to a network of churches in the area. In it, he warned that Parker election’s was part of a “homosexual agenda” to turn Houston into the “San Francisco of the South.” What is the homosexual agenda? He included a long list that included NAMBLA.

But such a strategy – which could have worked in Houston ten years ago – fell flat. If anything, there was a backlash against Locke after it was revealed that his campaign manager was funding Hotze’s PAC that mailed out anti-gay hit pieces. And for at least one Houston blogger, Parker’s election will help the city’s reputation. “When voters decided to elect the first openly gay mayor of a major American city,” he wrote, “they sent a message that Houston judges people on their accomplishments instead of their background, race, gender or sexual orientation.”

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