The South’s oldest LGBT civil rights organization draws criticism under its youthful leadership.
by Josef Molnar • Photo by Dalton DeHart
As the March primaries close and attention turns to this fall’s general election, Houston’s LGBT community looks to the Houston Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Political Caucus for non-partisan endorsements of candidates who believe in equal rights for all citizens, regardless of sexual orientation.
But recent divisions within the leadership of this influential organization, and a few of their candidate endorsements, have some long-time members wondering where the nonprofit is headed.
Central to the controversy is two-term board president Kris Banks, who some members say is causing the 35-year-old organization to stray from its original mission—political support of gay-friendly candidates—and toward his own interests. Others stand behind Banks and agree the caucus should broaden its mission.
There’s an obvious rift in the caucus. At stake is the future of an organization that should be playing a vital role in supporting and electing politicians who are sensitive to Houston’s LGBT community.
Politics vs. Advocacy
One side says Banks has strengthened the caucus by putting more of its resources into community advocacy. Others point to these very actions as weakening the group and diluting its original goal of fostering gay-friendly politics.
“There has been so much talk about ‘It’s time for a new generation to take over,’ but they’ve put off people,” says Jack Valinski, a longtime caucus member and a former director of the organization. He believes that some of the older retired members, who often have the most time available to volunteer, have been particularly alienated by caucus politics.
But not all board members feel that way, especially the younger ones.
“You never had the numbers and the action and the ability to get voters to turn out that you do now,” says caucus member Ryan Leach.
A Political Force in Houston
Since its beginning 35 years ago, the GLBT Political Caucus has fueled political action and support for gay-friendly politicians of all kinds, from lower-profile positions like precinct chairs and school board members to high-profile seats like Houston mayor. The caucus’s reach also extends to the state and national level: President Barack Obama personally sought and received the endorsement of the caucus during his 2008 campaign, and past gubernatorial candidates have also received caucus support.
The caucus awards gay and gay-friendly political candidates an endorsement, which is coveted by many, based on a screening of the individual’s credentials and viewpoints that is performed by caucus panels. The endorsement gives candidates access to the caucus’s extensive contact list through mail-outs, a pool of potential campaign volunteers, and a place on the group’s endorsement cards that bring many faithful voters to the booths.
The caucus has also historically supported gay and gay-friendly politicians and helped in their ascent up the political ladder. This was the case with familiar names like Houston Mayor Annise Parker and Council Member Sue Lovell. But critics of Banks say he’s shifting the caucus’s focus and, in the process, using his own set of rules to promote an agenda not in the caucus’s best interests.
“The caucus was set up to promote equality for LGBT people,” says board member Randall Ellis. “But more and more people are coming to the organization with their own political agendas, and driving those through instead.”
A Growing Divide
Acknowledging the divide and its potential lasting effects on this vital organization, a group of past presidents recently met with the current leadership to discuss the issues at hand. “This shows progress,” says caucus board member Kevin Hoffman. “I think we’re a little bit more on the road to having both sides coming to an understanding. That desperately needed to happen.”
But the current fissure still deeply divides the caucus.
A member since the caucus started, Ray Hill takes the “long view” over the current contention and how it reflects on the gay community.
“We’ve always been an argumentative and cantankerous lot, and that’s been part of our charm,” he says. “What’s going on should be important to all of us; if not, we don’t bother with it, but it is.”
Hill encourages any and all people with an interest in equal rights for the LGBT community to join the caucus and vote for board members and recommendations that support the traditional goals of the group. This will strengthen and increase unity in the organization, he says.
Banks, however, says his actions are designed to improve the caucus. He says the membership elected him and the board to lead the organization and they will continue with their current direction, despite the criticisms of detractors.
“A lot of folks don’t know what happened,” Hoffman says. “I didn’t vote for his re-election as president. I felt that Kris had not served the organization well [during his] previous term. A lot of our candidates were not elected, and efforts were not made to get people elected.”
A Change in Direction
Banks wants to help move the caucus into community advocacy efforts, and make major changes in the organization. The caucus has endorsed fewer candidates this year than it did two years ago, and that reduced focus on endorsements frees up resources for special projects and the changes Banks wants to make.
This has left out candidates running for lower-profile offices. C. Patrick McIlvain, an openly gay caucus member who is currently running for the Precinct 1 chair, sought the caucus’s endorsement. Although he won that endorsement when running for office in previous years, the board denied his request this year.
McIlvain says the move breaks a traditional commitment to help its members who are moving into public office. “The caucus wants us to be more involved and politically active, and they should go through and continue what has been started,” he says.
McIlvain claims he was targeted because he didn’t support Banks in his December bid for caucus president, but Banks says the caucus didn’t have enough resources to support McIlvain.
“We can’t endorse him and not endorse other precinct chairs,” Banks says. “There’s more than a hundred precinct chairs in Harris County, and we can’t screen every one of them.
“It’s a fair process,” he adds. “We don’t open the process for one office and then close it for another because we don’t like one of the people running for one of the offices.”
Banks also believes caucus resources shouldn’t be used this year to support a candidate running for a precinct with few voters when there are so many important judicial candidates.
Many members feel the caucus, under Banks’s leadership, also left a handful of its endorsed candidates out in the cold last year, while putting most of its energy and resources into the election of Mayor Parker.
The decision to focus those resources was unanimous, says board member Lindsey Dionne. “Everybody made that clear. Everybody that was running for office this time, that we were volunteering with, that was on the slate, was a big fan of Annise Parker, and wanted that to happen.”
Meanwhile, viable candidates that the caucus endorsed were nearly forgotten, if not mistreated, some members claim.
Waning Support for Candidates
Take Lane Lewis, an openly gay candidate last year for the Houston City Council District A seat. Lewis cemented his place in history by being one of the first to bring attention to the arrest of two men who were having sex in a private residence. That landmark Lawrence v. Texas case overruled anti-sodomy laws across the nation and decriminalized homosexual behavior.
Lewis is a “good example” of the inexperience of the current leadership, Valinski says, “because the people who took over the caucus were too naïve, or so focused on the mayoral race that they didn’t know who else was there in the race.”
As the caucus meeting director, Banks is also accused of unfairness toward Karen Derr, a past city council candidate and longtime supporter of the gay community. Among other complaints, Banks allegedly failed to provide Derr, who was endorsed by the caucus, with an equal opportunity to speak with caucus members last year when she ran for an at-large city council position against Stephen Costello.
“I think Karen may have been confused about what I was asking,” Banks says. “But when I realized that she wanted to address the group, I said, ‘Oh, hold on,’ and she did get to address the group.”
But that opportunity didn’t occur until people were leaving, said caucus member Ellis, the former executive director of Equality Texas who also supported Derr.
“The endorsement card was not put out in a timely manner,” he says, adding that the caucus failed Derr in multiple ways. “It was a matter of how she was treated.” [Editor’s note: OutSmart magazine’s publisher, Greg Jeu, also supported Derr’s candidacy.]
It Was and Wasn’t a Good Year
Banks admits that he chose to put the bulk of his efforts as caucus president last year toward helping to get Annise Parker elected as Houston’s mayor.
Responding to claims that some of the other caucus-endorsed candidates suffered because of his narrow focus, Banks says “it was and it wasn’t a good year for gay candidates.
“When I ran for president, the first thing I said is, ‘We’re going to focus this year on Annise Parker’s campaign.’ And that’s what I did.”
While Parker acknowledges she is grateful for the work of the caucus on her campaign, it was never her intent to monopolize caucus resources. Her spokesperson, Janet Evans, tells OutSmart that the mayor realizes her high-profile campaign and subsequent runoff election inadvertently left fewer resources for other candidates.
In fact, Parker directly apologized for this unintended consequence.
“That may have been their decision, but she did not order them to head in that direction,” Evans adds. “She also had the same conversation [with the other candidates on the slate] personally in terms of that happening.”
Friends and Enemies
This year, Banks is confident that the caucus should be able to support many more candidates. “It’s not like I have to completely focus on one campaign like I did last year,” he says.
“The reason I’m happy I got re-elected,” he adds, “is because we were focused so much on Annise’s campaign that we didn’t get to do some of the bigger changes that I wanted for the organization.”
These changes are what unnerve many caucus members. They allege Banks has already used questionable tactics to get his way, and are concerned that this will continue. Critics of Banks also say cronyism is at the heart of his presidency, creating a small group that makes decisions and further widens the organizational chasm he’s helped create.
“What happens is that a relatively small group of people get the numbers, and they start excluding the people who are not in the ‘in group.’ That’s what is happening now,” Hill says.
He says the caucus has had its share of unpopular presidents and others who have tightly held the reins of power, but the current leadership is using its political muscle to silence its opponents.
“We previously had lot of volunteers who were locked out last year from being able to continue doing their volunteer work with the caucus,” says board member Kevin Hoffman. “Those folks are not there anymore, and we lost those skill sets. No one has stepped up to the plate, and there’s no plan to replace [those who are not there anymore].”
He adds that some of the members who were forced out have since quit working with the caucus, although they still retain their memberships.
Banks was quick to recruit new caucus members from among his associates and friends, some of whom are now board members who support his agenda. Some members say this makes their votes and opinions moot. Banks also removed one of the dissidents who didn’t agree with his vision for the caucus.
Hoffman was allegedly forced out of his position as screening chair by his colleagues. Banks requested Hoffman’s resignation, and after Hoffman refused to step down, replaced him during a board meeting that Banks called on January 8, one month before the board’s term began. Neal Falgoust, a new board member and a Banks supporter, took Hoffman’s place.
Hoffman says his removal was in retaliation for not supporting Banks in his bid for president of the board, but Banks disagrees.
“They’re not lifetime appointments,” Banks says. “I wanted a new screening chair, it was the beginning of my new term, and I wanted to make some changes to my leadership team. [I had hoped that Kevin] would help me out with that, but he chose not to, so we had to do what we had to do to get the work done.”
Still an Open Process
Caucus member Ryan Leach believes that the criticisms against the leadership are not realistic, and that the board and the caucus have remained transparent.
“It’s a very open process,” he says.
“Every time we do screenings, every time we do a vote, every time we do a discussion, it’s an open process. So I don’t understand how anybody can say they were being left out or taken off of anything without cause.”
However, Hill says the current board manipulates procedural rules to silence dissent. He says he fruitlessly sought permission to address the caucus at the group’s December meeting, when he wished to request that Sue Lovell be censured for mailing out negative campaign literature that targeted Jolanda Jones, a fellow city council member endorsed by the caucus. Banks, a friend and political pupil of Lovell, made a motion to close the meeting after the agenda had been concluded and before members could introduce any motions or make comments.
Hill says the move violated the rules of order that the caucus traditionally follows.
“When the president hears only what he wants to hear, then anyone else who speaks is considered out of order,” Hill says. “They are now using created rules.”
Banks says it was a simple matter of concluding the meeting, and says Hill failed to convince the membership that what he had to say was important.
“There was a motion to adjourn and a majority of people voted for it,” he says. “That’s what it’s for: it’s for, ‘We want to
The Heart of the Matter
Some have criticized Lovell’s close relationship with Banks and other board members, saying that Lovell’s political preferences may have worked their way into Banks’s choices. Banks defends Lovell’s influence in determining the direction of the caucus and says she is a valuable mentor for him.
“Sue Lovell has been elected three times citywide in this city,” Banks says. “She is chair of two very important city council committees, she has been elected statewide by the Democratic Party to serve on the Democratic National Committee, and she is nationally the vice chair of the DNC’s LGBT Caucus, so I am more than happy to have advice from Sue, and I value that advice.”
While members allege that Banks acts in the interest of himself and his cohorts, they also say he’s dropped the ball on efforts that are fundamental to the caucus, such as maintenance of its extensive contact list. That list of members and supporters is sought after by politicians and other organizations who want to reach gay-friendly voters.
Hill says the list hasn’t been updated since Banks became president. Jack Valinski maintained the database until he was removed from that duty last year.
“The GLBT community tends to be gypsies, so if you don’t have that address correction element in the list, the list deteriorates,” Hill says. “It’s now two years out of date, so as much as 20 percent of the list [is useless].”
The board has denied funding for mail-outs that would facilitate address corrections—a project that Banks wants to do some other way. “I can’t talk about it now because I need to put it before the board,” he says, “but we’re looking at doing that a new way.”
These kinds of things have some members feeling disheartened, and even stymied. Banks is aware of the criticism and admits his ways are different from those of some past presidents. Nevertheless, he maintains his passion for the group.
“Maybe they don’t know me very well, and maybe they’re not interested in knowing me that well, but the people who have seen me work know where my heart is,” Banks says. “I just have to keep doing what needs to be done.”
Hill sees this current discord as merely a bump in the road that, so far, has led to success. Electing a gay mayor in Houston was simply a dream when the caucus formed 35 years ago, he says, adding that he regrets how the caucus leadership has alienated some long-time members in the process.
“We tend to get overly personal, and that may be off-putting to some, but I think that we’re justified in making it personal because [it has resulted in real progress],” Hill says. “That has not happened by accident; that happened [because of the tireless efforts] of a relatively small group of people, and I am proud to have been one of those people.”
Josef Molnar wrote about the Lawrence v. Texas case in the March 2003 issue of OutSmart.
The Houston GLBT Political Caucus (HGLBTPC), founded in 1975, is the South’s oldest LGBT civil rights organization. The HGLBTPC is member-based and serves as the political arm of the Houston LGBT community.
The HGLBTPC’s primary role is to screen and endorse local, state, and federal candidates. The HGLBTPC screens candidates to ensure they meet the criteria set forth by the membership, including full support of LGBT civil rights.
Members participate in the screening of candidates as well as vote in the endorsement meeting. The HGLBTPC endorsement card is a voting tool highly sought after by many LGBT and straight voters.
The HGLBTPC participates in numerous activities including:
• Screen and endorse candidates
• Legislator accountability (lobbying and community mobilization)
• Field work/voter identification
• Political actions (e.g., door-to-door, letter-writing campaigns)
• Voter registration
• Get-out-the-vote drives
• Collaboration with local organizations to strengthen the power of the LGBT vote
The HGLBTPC has numerous volunteer opportunities in the following areas:
• Candidate development
• Field work
• Lobbying/government affairs
• Marketing & PR
• Membership management
• Volunteer management
E-mail: [email protected]