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Runoff Redemption on December 12

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The future of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.
By John Wright

The future of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) will be determined by the outcome of the December 12 municipal election runoff, LGBT advocates say.

Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, who supports HERO, faces former Kemah mayor Bill King, who opposes the ordinance, in the race to replace Mayor Annise Parker, who is term-limited. Meanwhile, four runoffs for City Council, as well as the controller’s race, pit candidates backed by LGBT groups against those endorsed by the anti-HERO Campaign for Houston.

After HERO’s devastating defeat at the polls on November 3, Parker indicated the current Council could revisit the ordinance before she leaves office at the end of the year. However, Parker has since said she doesn’t believe there’s time to take up a new HERO before her third and final term expires.

“A lot of people are hurting. A lot of people are asking questions: What’s next for us? How do we pick up the pieces?” said James Lee, president of Houston Stonewall Young Democrats (HSYD). “I think the clear answer is that Sylvester Turner is the candidate for HERO and the future of Houston.”

Turner’s campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. But in his speech on election night after advancing to the runoff, Turner referenced the defeat of HERO, or Proposition 1. “In the city that I hope to build, given the opportunity, every single person has the right to ride on the streets I build,” Turner said. “We should live in a city where no person is discriminated against based on group dynamics. We should live in a city where if you work hard, if you play by the rules, you should be entitled to the benefits this city has to offer. That is Houston’s future. We are not going to go back to Houston’s past.”

Lee said if there’s a bright side to HERO’s overwhelming defeat, it may be that it lit a fire under the LGBT community, which he hopes will turn out in large numbers for the runoff. “Maybe they didn’t vote. Maybe they didn’t know there was an election going on, but now they know,” Lee said. “Houston’s been in a lot of national headlines, and not in a good way.”

Maverick Welsh, president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, said he’s confident Turner would revisit HERO if he’s elected, although he may not do so right away. “Obviously, HERO went down in flames, but I think there’s an opportunity to fix it moving forward,” Welsh said. “I think a bad result like that sometimes serves as a good wake-up call to move us where we really need to go.”

Welsh added that Turner, who is black, is the best possible candidate for the LGBT community at this point, because he can reach out to the African-American voters who voted heavily against HERO based largely on the debunked myth that it would lead to sexual predators entering women’s restrooms. “He’s a favorite son in the African-American community, and I think he can allay a lot of these fears that were just lies,” Welsh said.

Of course, even if Turner wins, he would need the support of a majority of Council members to pass a new HERO. In addition to Turner, the Caucus is backing openly gay incumbent Mike Laster in District J, Richard Nguyen in District F, incumbent David Robinson for At-Large Position 2, Amanda Edwards for At-Large Position 4, and Chris Brown for controller. All five face candidates in the runoff who are endorsed by the Campaign for Houston.

Despite HERO’s defeat, Welsh said the Caucus’ slate fared well overall on November 3, with most endorsed candidates either winning outright or advancing to a runoff. “I’ve heard 40,000 or 50,000 people showed up just to vote no on that ordinance,” Welsh said. “I don’t think they’re going to show back up.”

The Campaign for Houston has already launched a round of 300,000 robocalls encouraging voters to ask Council members not to revisit the ordinance. “Our battle to keep men out of women’s bathrooms, showers, and locker rooms is not over,” Dr. Steve Hotze said in an email for Campaign for Houston on November 11. “I will not tell you that it is imperative that we elect a mayor and members of council who oppose Houston’s Proposition 1, the Bathroom Ordinance. . . . If Sylvester Turner is elected mayor, then you can be sure that he will try to pass the Bathroom Ordinance again. The only way to prevent this is by electing a mayor and members of city council who oppose the Bathroom Ordinance.”

Shortly after the November 3 election, former mayoral candidates Adrian Garcia and Steve Costello both endorsed Turner in the runoff election, citing him as the best candidate to move Houston forward.

In mid-November, progressive former mayoral candidate Chris Bell surprised political insiders and supporters by endorsing King for the December 12 election. While many question Bell’s shocking endorsement, he stands by his decision. “I think Bill has given a tremendous amount of thought as to what he wants to accomplish as mayor and has real ideas that he can put into action beginning on his first day in office,” Bell told OutSmart. “Of course I was a big advocate for HERO and nothing about that has changed. Bill knows that this has given Houston a black eye and that we need to do something about it. He plans to sit down with all stakeholders and try to figure out a way forward and to put forth a proposal that people can get behind. I don’t think it will look exactly like HERO, because of the fact that it didn’t pass, but I also don’t think that this runoff is about HERO, while the last one was. I don’t think we can just keep fighting over the same issue when it’s not even on the ballot. But if I thought that Bill was some kind of hater, I wouldn’t have considered supporting him.”

Lee said HSYD was the only LGBT group that interviewed mayoral candidate King as part of its endorsement process. King told the group he believed HERO needed to be rewritten, but also said he didn’t think the ordinance was necessary, Lee said. “Bill King couldn’t hold a consistent stance on any issue,” Lee noted, adding that HSYD also asked King how he would address anti-LGBT discrimination without an ordinance prohibiting it. “His response was that he would handle the situation personally, and that’s not leadership,” Lee said. “We need a mayor who’s going to make sure we have an ordinance and protection for all Houstonians, and that’s Sylvester Turner.”

Early voting for the runoff begins December 2 and ends December 8. Election Day is December 12. For information about early voting and Election Day polling locations, visit HarrisVotes.com.

Megan Smith also contributed to this report.

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John Wright

John Wright is the editor of OutSmart magazine. He has spent two decades in the mainstream and LGBTQ media. Most recently, he served as senior editor of Dallas Voice, and covered LGBTQ issues in the state Legislature for The Texas Observer. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Wright earned his bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Florida. He resides in the EaDo area of Houston, where he is currently remodeling a 1930s row house.
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