See also: Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund
In 1997, Annise Parker won a runoff election to become Houston’s first openly lesbian elected official. She proceeded to win reelection to the At-Large Position 1 council seat, and then won the controller’s race in 2003. She was reelected twice before going on to win the mayor’s race. She just won a second term as the city’s top elected official, and during her tenure the city elected another lesbian, Sue Lovell, to city council.
So the women have been doing pretty well. But until last month, Houston had never elected an openly gay man to city council.
Meet Mike Laster, attorney, neighborhood activist, and now councilmember-elect for the newly created District J.
“Clearly, the mayor has paved the way,” Laster says. “But so has Sue Lovell and the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. There have been many qualified gay candidates before now; I was just the first to win.
“The question of the sexuality of any of the candidates for District J never came up during the campaign,” Laster says. “It was about who was best prepared to lead the new district.”
The City of Houston charter required that the council expand to 11 single-member districts (from the previous nine) once the population passed 2.1 million. The results of the 2010 census tipped that clause into effect, and District J was carved out of the southwest portion of the city.
Of the current 14 seats on city council, only two are held by Hispanics, so part of the reason for mapping out the new district was to create a “Latino opportunity district” where 63 percent of the population is of Hispanic origin. Of the three candidates, two were Hispanic—but it was Laster, a white gay man, who won with more than 67 percent of the vote. He was not only endorsed by LGBT groups but by the Houston Chronicle as well.
“I always called it an opportunity-for-everyone district,” says Laster. “The new District J is the Ellis Island of Houston. There are Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans and Anglos.”
While the election results left some Hispanic activists scratching their heads, most political pundits were not surprised. The district may be predominately Hispanic, but only 17 percent of that population is registered to vote.
When it came to the voting population, Laster says, there was no one community greater than another. “It came down to who could put together a coalition,” he says. And it helped that he outspent his opponents and was better known in the community.
The 50-year-old Laster (“I’m officially AARP-qualified now,” he quips) was born in the small town of San Pablo, California, where he lettered in track and football and graduated high school in a class of just 35 students.
“Some people would say you’re not missing much if you’ve never been there,” Laster says. “But it was a great place for kids to be kids.”
He came to Houston in 1985 to attend the University of Houston Law Center after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin. He was national vice chair of the American Bar Association Law Student Division before earning his juris doctorate. He started his legal career with the City of Houston as a senior assistant attorney in the real estate division from 1989 to 1995. In 1998, he joined the firm of Williams, Birnberg & Andersen, L.L.P., where he still practices.
But since buying his first home in Sharpstown 18 years ago, he’s also been active in civic associations. He currently serves as a board member and is the immediate past chairman of the Sharpstown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone and Redevelopment Authority, is secretary and founding board member of the Greater Sharpstown Management District, and is a board member and former president of the Sharpstown Civic Association.
“Public service is an integral part of what I do,” Laster says. “I’ve always been very active in the Democratic Party.” He served as executive committeeman for the Texas Democratic Party from 1994 to 1998 and was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1996.
As if that isn’t enough to keep him busy, he’s also an active member of Trinity Episcopal Church, where he has served as senior warden and is a current parish delegate to the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.
You would think the man wouldn’t have any spare time, but occasionally he does.
“I do love to dine out,” he says. “But what I really love is staying home and cooking for friends and family. I microwave a mean hot dog.”
All joking aside, he also makes a pretty good paella as well as an apple-raisin-cranberry pie that he says you’ll always want once you’ve tasted it.
And while he has a longtime partner, don’t expect to see him at his side at official functions. “We both take a very
low-key approach to our public lives,” Laster says.
In fact, Laster doesn’t put a lot of stock in being the first out gay man elected to Houston city council. He’s more concerned about representing all the people of his district. “I just want to hit the ground running,” he says. “Since it is a new district, I want to get as many constituents as possible to weigh in on what kind of district we will be.
“This election was about neighborhood services; potholes and garbage pickup.” Not exactly sexy issues, but ones that matter most at the end of the day.
His other priority is public safety, ensuring that District J has the best possible first-responder services.
“Bringing down the crime rate in Sharpstown will also mean bringing more infrastructure, businesses, and commercial development to the area,” says Laster. And during this struggling economy, he realizes that trimming the city budget of waste is an important task for any councilmember.
“But the economy is going to turn around eventually,” he adds. “And we must cut fat, not muscle and bone that we’re going to need.”
Sounds like Laster will be plenty busy from now until he’s sworn in January 2, but he’ll make time for holiday gatherings of family and friends. Gatherings he calls large and boisterous. Which could also be good preparation for city council meetings.
“I am very honored to have received the endorsement of the Victory Fund,” says Houston Councilmember-elect Mike Laster. “Their endorsement meant a great deal to the campaign. The financial help I received from the Victory Fund helped us achieve the level of success that we were working for.”
The Victory Fund, established by Dallas gay activist William Waybourn and former Human Rights Campaign Fund Executive Director Vic Basile in 1991, was modeled after EMILY’s List, the political action committee that helps elect female candidates nationwide.
“It was EMILY’s success at bundling contributions from across the country to help local candidates that we wanted to recreate for the GLBT community,” says Denis Dison, vice president of communications for Victory Fund. “We can fund candidates to the extent of the election law, but more important is that we can reach out to our national base and encourage them to make individual contributions to candidates.”
But more than that, Victory Fund offers technical campaign advice and training. In fact, the organization was in Houston earlier this month for a training session at the Hilton Americas. Some 500 candidates, campaign managers, and volunteers from around the country and even outside of the U.S. were expected. The sessions were followed by the 27th International Gay & Lesbian Leadership Conference.
But not every candidate wins the organization’s seal of approval.
Dison says only about half of the candidates who apply are endorsed by Victory Fund. In 2011 there were only 75 endorsements. But of the candidates endorsed, 60 to 70 percent traditionally win their races.
“We look for strong candidates in the vetting process,” he says. “Ones that are planning a serious campaign and can demonstrate community support and support efforts to advance LGBT civil rights via the legislative or regulatory process.” —M.G.
For more info on Victory Fund, visit victoryfund.org.
Marene Gustin is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.