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By John Wright
After an 18-month battle over Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), it all comes down to Tuesday, according to Richard Carlbom, campaign manager for Houston Unites.
Carlbom said that, after two weeks of early voting, he believes ballots are evenly split for and against HERO.
HERO, which appears on the ballot as “City of Houston, Proposition No. 1,” would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and 13 other characteristics in employment, housing, public accommodations, and city contracting.
“It’s really going to be about how many people come out on Election Day and who has the better turnout operation,” Carlbom said, adding that the pro-HERO campaign will have hundreds of volunteers knocking on doors and making phone calls throughout the day. “We need to drag every voter we know is going to vote ‘Yes’ to the polls.”
Some experts say early voting returns favor the anti-HERO campaign, due to large increases in turnout in heavily Republican and African-American precincts, where voters are less likely to support the ordinance. But Carlbom said that trend declined as early voting progressed, adding that part of the turnout increase is due to a historic shift toward more people casting ballots early as opposed to on Election Day.
“Obviously, we’re looking at the numbers as well. I don’t see the same thing,” Carlbom said. “We’ve anticipated this would be a close campaign the whole way. We’re planning to win.”
Pro-HERO groups have raised more than $3 million, many times more than opponents, according to the latest campaign finance reports. They’ve also received public endorsements in recent days from the White House, Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and actresses Sally Field and Eva Longoria, among others.
“While the administration generally does not take a formal position on specific proposals or initiatives, the president and vice president have been strong supporters of state and local efforts to protect Americans from being discriminated against based on who they are and who they love,” White House spokesman Jeff Tiller said in a statement Thursday. “We’re confident that the citizens will vote in favor of fairness and equality.”
On Friday, Fortune 500 companies Apple, General Electric, Hewlett Packard, BASF and EMC Corp. joined nearly 60 other businesses that have come out in support of HERO.
“Apple is proud to be a part of Houston with four stores that employ over 500 people,” the company said in a statement. “Our stores and our company are open to everyone, regardless of where they come from, what they look like, how they worship, or who they love. Apple supports Proposition 1 as it sends a clear message that Houston is focused on a future of inclusion, diversity, and continued prosperity.”
The Human Rights Campaign, which has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the pro-HERO campaign, reported Saturday that its ground operation in Houston was “the largest mobilization of staff for a campaign in our organization’s history.”
And on Sunday, business and civil rights leaders gathered yet again to make a final push in support of the ordinance. They included representatives from the Greater Houston Partnership, the NAACP, and the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
HERO supporters note that during the time the ordinance was in effect, roughly half of the discrimination complaints filed were based on race.
“The Equal Rights Ordinance gives all of us a voice. It puts Houston on record as wanting to protect all of its people from discrimination,” said James Douglas, president of the NAACP Houston Branch. “The truth is, when we look back, we’ll see that the opponents of this ordinance will have been on the wrong side of history. Houston needs a local tool to address the many cases of discrimination that still occur to this today, and I believe the Equal Rights Ordinance is that tool.”
Despite a groundswell of last-minute support for HERO, experts say Tuesday’s margin could be razor thin.
A KHOU/KUHF poll released last month found that 43 percent of respondents supported HERO, 37 percent opposed it and 18 percent were undecided, with a margin of error of 4.1 percent.
The poll also found undecided voters were persuadable on two issues: the threat of the city losing the 2016 NCAA Men’s Final Four and the 2017 Super Bowl if the ordinance is repealed, and the notion that it would allow men to enter women’s restrooms if it’s approved.
HERO opponents, who’ve dubbed it “the bathroom ordinance,” have flooded the airwaves with ads promoting the debunked transgender bathroom myth.
But LGBT advocates note that entering a restroom with the intent to cause a disturbance is already illegal in Houston, and they say no such incidents have been reported in more than 200 other US cities with similar ordinances.
Houston is the largest city in the US, and the only major city in Texas, that lacks an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance.
After the council approved HERO in May 2014, the city rejected a petition seeking to repeal it, saying it didn’t have enough valid signatures. Anti-LGBT activists filed a lawsuit, but a district judge upheld the city’s decision, saying the petition contained widespread forgery.
However, HERO opponents eventually obtained a decision from the elected, all-Republican Texas Supreme Court, ordering the city to repeal the ordinance or place it on the ballot.
The council voted in August to place HERO on the ballot, leaving supporters just two months to organize their campaign.
“I think we’ve done a good job of reaching out to the various different communities to try to articulate how many different folks are going to benefit from having the Equal Rights Ordinance in place,” Carlbom said. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”
Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, November 3. To find your polling location, visit HarrisVotes.org.
Houston Unites will host an election watch party beginning at 7 p.m. on Tuesday at Jackson Street BBQ (209 Jackson St).