Blue State of Mind
Does Lane Lewis have what it takes to turn Texas blue?
by Megan Smith
Looking at a recent electoral map, Harris County is a blue island floating in a vast Republican-red sea. While the razor-thin margin of Obama’s 2012 victory in Harris County may seem like a temporary fluke, this small blue island is instilling fear into Republicans nationwide, according to Harris County Democratic Party Chair Lane Lewis. Why the concern? Harris County may be the key to turning that surrounding sea a different color—blue.
With 25 percent of all Texas votes coming out of Harris County, Lewis may very well hold that key to future Democratic victories in elections on all levels. “What I realized is that I was standing in the center of a storm,” he says. “If we can [permanently] flip Harris County [by delivering substantial and consistent margins of victory], we can flip Texas. If we flip Texas, the White House is ours for generations.”
Turning Texas blue isn’t feasible if Democrats aren’t fully engaged at all times, Lewis says. After his unanimous election in 2011, Lewis presented his vision for the party that included more fundraising and, most notably, year-round organizing—a system that has just begun to pay off. In the 2012 presidential election, Obama won 49.38 percent of the Harris County vote to Romney’s 49.33 percent. “My vision is that if Harris County can go blue three cycles in a row in 2012, 2014, and 2016, it’s game over,” he says.
A political and community organizer since his teenage years, no one knows the power of good organizing better than Lewis. “My first big political act was coming out,” he says. “From there, I wanted to make it better and easier for others to come out and live as the people they were born to be.”
In 1987, Lewis gave his first speech in front of the Houston City Council at age nineteen, speaking out against an ordinance that would only allow people twenty-one or older to patronize nightclubs that served liquor. “The place was standing-room only,” he says. “I was hooked. I realized that my voice and my words could actually influence and make a difference on politics and on people’s lives.”
It wasn’t until 1991 that Lewis re-entered the political sphere. His work as marketing director for a treatment facility that specialized in LGBT issues led him to the Houston GLBT Political Caucus—an organization where he would later serve as president. There he met prominent activists Sue Lovell, Ray Hill, and Annise Parker. “They actually listened to my opinions and were actually interested in what I had to say,” Lewis says. “Probably because I was so interested in what they had to say.”
The caucus also led Lewis to community leader Bill Scott, and together they formed The Lewis-Scott Youth Center, the nation’s first organization to provide shelter to LGBT street kids living with HIV. Up until that point, LGBT youth were completely overlooked when it came to funding.
A civil rights history buff, Lewis became fixated on an idea he had read in The Autobiography of Malcolm X—you can’t take your argument for civil rights to a government that oppresses you; you have to take it to the United Nations to make the world recognize your plight.
Through Ray Hill, Lewis was able to do just that. Hill brought Lewis to the initial meeting for Stonewall 25, the 1994 Stonewall anniversary march on the United Nations to bring global attention to the needs of LGBT people. When he heard their plan, “I almost fell out of my chair,” Lewis says. He went on to serve as both the youth constituent and chair for the direct-action working group for the organization.
The Houston bar where Lewis was working in 1998 seemed an unlikely place for history to be made. Everyone who knew Lewis was aware that he was focused on getting rid of Texas Penal Code 21.06, which made homosexual sex illegal. “I was like a dog with a bone with 21.06,” Lewis says. “I wanted it gone. So I had put feelers out everywhere I knew.”
A Friday night in October brought Lewis just what he was looking for. A bar regular named Mark, who was a semi-retired deputy, came in and said, “I think I’ve got something for you.” A few days later, Lewis received a copy of the police report by fax that detailed the arrest of John Lawrence and Tyron Garner. “As soon as I saw it, I knew I had it,” Lewis says. “I knew this was it, but I also knew I had to keep them from pleading out.”
After convincing Lawrence and Garner to trust him, Lewis called Lovell, Hill, and Parker. They all agreed that the men had a case and that Mitchell Katine should be their lawyer. “The reason I called them is that, from the very beginning, I didn’t want this to be my case,” Lewis says. “This was a community case. Mitchell was well-liked in the community and had spent years giving away his legal services. He had paid his dues and he deserved it.” The case went on to the U.S. Supreme Court as Lawrence v. Texas, one of the most prominent victories in gay-rights history.
“Think about it like this,” Lewis says. “If I want equality for all gays and lesbians, the ultimate prize, other than changing the hearts and minds of the naysayers, is equality in job opportunity—your ability not to be fearful and to be protected at your job for who you are. But you can’t go right there, can you? If I want to be protected in my job, then I need to be protected in my personal life. That means legalize marriage. But I can’t go straight there either. So where do I start? I can’t be protected in my job if it’s illegal for me to be gay—21.06. I can’t be legally married or comfortable in my relationships, married or otherwise, if it is illegal for me to be in those relationships [because of Texas Penal Code] 21.06. So 21.06 wasn’t about me personally. The goal was job equality and protection under the law.”
Lewis credits Hill for advice he still uses in his political career today. “We were sitting at lunch one day, and Ray told me that the antigay movement had already lost; they just didn’t know it yet,” Lewis says. “‘We’ve already won—we just need to start acting like it.’”
After Lewis left a teaching job in 2009, he decided to take that mentality a step further. He ran a solid campaign for City Council in District A and lost by only a small margin. Undeterred, he was soon elected as Chair for Texas State Senate District 15. There, he ran a phone-bank program that turned out 63 percent of targeted voters in 2010, “which was unheard of,” he says. “I think there was some hope that ‘if he can do that in Senate District 15, I wonder what he could do for the whole county.’”
When Gerry Birnberg, former Harris County Democratic Party chair, announced he was stepping down in late 2011, Lewis got his opportunity.
Lewis hit the party with something they’d never done before—a mail ballot program. Postcards are mailed to county residents age sixty-five or older, allowing them to easily request a mail ballot. The party then provides follow-up phone calls to ensure these people have received their ballot applications, ballots, and have gotten their questions answered.
The Republicans usually receive about 24,000 straight-ticket Republican votes from their mail ballot program, which they’ve been doing for years, Lewis says. Democrats at the time were only receiving about 3,000 straight-ticket Democratic votes. “With those numbers, we’ve practically lost all the races already,” he says.
“I think Texas is a blue state. I just don’t think we’re voting. If you look at an electoral map, and you’ve got New York that is blue, California that is blue, and if you [could make Texas] blue, you can pretty much give up on the rest of the United States and still win the White House. The only reason we’re fighting over all these other states is because Texas is red.”
The initial year of the Harris County Democratic Party’s mail ballot program more than quintupled the number of straight-ticket Democratic votes, totaling around 17,000.
Lewis explains that beginning on January 5, 2014, each voter that previously cast their ballot by mail is going to get another call from the party to offer them the chance to vote by mail in the spring primary. “I’m trying to create habit,” he says. “And, on January 5, a new law goes into effect that says you no longer have to request a mail ballot every time there’s an election. From now on, if you request a mail ballot once, they will automatically send you a ballot for all the elections for the year. You don’t have to request another one for twelve months.”
The party has now partnered with Senator John Whitmire and Senator Sylvia Garcia to run a mail ballot program in their districts for municipal nonpartisan elections. “We’re not telling them who to vote for, we’re just saying every election matters,” Lewis says. “And if you’re a Democrat, every election matters to you, too.”
Another benefit to the program is that you don’t have to show a photo ID if you vote by mail, Lewis says. He argues that the Republican Party is attempting to suppress voters within the county—a trend that is occurring nationally following the Supreme Court’s decision last summer to strike down key elements of the Voting Rights Act.
“Republicans don’t have any ideas,” Lewis says. “All they do is sit around complaining about other people’s ideas. Their policies have failed. So the only way they can hold on to power is to disenfranchise voters. What the Supreme Court said in their decision on the Voting Rights Act was not that preclearance is illegal, just that the system they use is out-of-date. I am very hopeful that our Congress will lead the charge to fix [these new voter-suppression laws] and not leave it the way that it is.”
Unlike the Republicans, Lewis says he isn’t interested in separating voters into groups. He is the first chair of the party to eliminate minority outreach coordinators, in an effort to move away from identity politics. Instead, he has field organizers responsible for organizing every voter in a district, regardless of their identity. “Too many politicians think if they can just speak Spanish, they’ll get the Latino vote,” Lewis says. “Latinos do not vote their language, they vote their culture and they vote their need. And their need is not for me to speak Spanish. Their need is for health care and education.
“It’s about looking where you want to go, and backing it up,” Lewis continues. “21.06 wasn’t about 21.06, it was about equal opportunity to work. Flipping Harris County is not just about flipping Harris County, it’s about owning the White House.”