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New City Council Unlikely to Take Up HERO Right Away

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Turner still supports nondiscrimination ordinance, also respects will of voters.
By John Wright

Despite Sylvester Turner’s victory in the mayor’s race, don’t expect Houston’s new City Council to take up an LGBT nondiscrimination ordinance anytime soon.

State Rep. Turner, D-Houston, who supported the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, narrowly defeated businessman and former Kemah mayor Bill King, who opposed HERO, in the December 12 runoff.

But two City Council members who voted in favor of HERO and won re-election said they don’t anticipate a rush to revisit the ordinance, which voters repealed by a margin of 61 percent to 39 percent on November 3.

Council Member Ellen Cohen, an LGBT ally who was re-elected to the District C seat, said although she believes a majority of the new council backs nondiscrimination protections, any ordinance likely would be subject to another public vote.

“It’s not a question I think so much as where City Council stands, as much as it is, how do we convey to the general community the importance of equal rights in this city?” Cohen said, adding that a new HERO must be accompanied by “a robust education campaign.”

Cohen stressed the need to “eliminate a false sense of fear and anxiety” among those who voted against HERO, and to “sit down with all parties and see if we can’t start addressing some of their issues.

“I’m not the new mayor, and the new mayor’s going to have to decide what he puts on his agenda, but I would say that if I continue to be granted these four years, then somewhere along the way I certainly am going to revisit equality,” said Cohen, who’ll be term-limited in 2019.

Turner’s campaign didn’t respond to a message seeking comment. During the runoff, Turner repeatedly expressed support for nondiscrimination protections, but also said he respected the will of voters.

“I have always fought against discrimination,” Turner told the Houston Chronicle after winning the runoff. “That’s not changing. This is the most diverse city. It needs to be a very welcoming and inclusive city, and I’ve said that repeatedly. Now the question then becomes, ‘What are the mechanics to effectuate that belief?’ And that’s something we’ll continue to work on.”

Openly gay Council Member Mike Laster, who voted in favor of HERO and defeated anti-HERO candidate Jim Bigham in the runoff to win a third term in District J, said he was disappointed but not surprised by the voters’ decision to repeal the ordinance, adding that he wished the margin had been closer.

“My anticipation is that there will be a time period of reflection, and I’m hoping that time of reflection will mature into a period of active discussion about what happens next and how that might happen and when it might happen, but I don’t see a current push to rush into any new options at this point in time,” Laster said.

Cohen and Laster were among incumbent council members who overcame anti-HERO sentiment among voters to retain their seats.

“We’ve spent four years demonstrating good customer service, and I’m very proud to have run on that record,” Laster said.

Not all pro-HERO council members were so lucky. Council Member Richard Nguyen, who voted in favor of HERO, fell to anti-HERO candidate Steve Le in the District F runoff. But James Lee, president of Houston Stonewall Young Democrats (HSYD), said he believes Lee’s victory was fueled more by local issues than anti-HERO sentiment.

All told, six of the nine candidates endorsed by the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, and four of the seven backed by HSYD, won their runoffs. Meanwhile, four of the nine candidates backed by the anti-HERO Campaign for Houston won their runoffs.

“I think in the end, the victory’s still ours, as far as having a friendly council,” Lee said. “They may have won HERO, but we still have council and we still have the mayor’s office.”

Lee said he’s confident Turner will eventually revisit HERO, but he acknowledged that some council members are still “rattled” by voters’ overwhelming rejection of the ordinance.

“It’s something that I think a lot of council members will really have to take some time to figure out, and I think it’s going to be the responsibility for us, the LGBT community, to really address the issue again—to really address some of the lies that were out there,” Lee said. “It’s our responsibility to make sure we continue democracy, and make sure that we apply pressure on the people that represent us, and I think you’ll see that.”

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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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