Former mayor discusses new role as CEO of LGBTQ political group.
By Ryan M. Leach
Former Houston mayor Annise Parker is the new president and CEO of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, a nonprofit organization focused on identifying and electing LGBTQ people to public office.
Parker is intimately familiar with the organization because her earliest campaigns for Houston City Council were supported by the Victory Fund after it was founded in 1991. The group’s backing eventually helped Parker become the first openly LGBTQ person elected mayor of a major U.S. city, in 2009.
Now, Parker is checking off another “first” as the first elected official to lead the Victory Fund. She takes over for Aisha Moodie-Mills, who announced her departure during the group’s International LGBTQ Leaders Conference on December 8.
“I am uniquely positioned to understand the challenges our LGBTQ candidates face when running for office, as well as the tools and techniques necessary to succeed,” Parker told OutSmart after taking over as CEO last month.
“Openly LGBTQ people hold just 0.1 percent of all elected positions nationwide,” she said. “We remain vastly underrepresented at every level of government, and we would need to elect 21,300 more openly LGBTQ people to achieve equitable representation.”
Parker is determined to make progress toward that goal during her tenure—and the task starts immediately, as the nation moves into the 2018 congressional midterm election cycle, its first with Republican Donald Trump as president.
Parker said the Victory Fund is already working hard on its slate of endorsed candidates. They include two major races: re-electing Democrat Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, the first openly LGBTQ U.S. senator, and electing Arizona Democratic congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema to the Senate.
But major national campaigns are not the group’s sole focus.
“State and local races are Victory Fund’s bread and butter—and we helped elect more than 60 state and local candidates in 2017,” Parker said. “This year, we expect that number to be much greater.”
Of course, Parker’s home state of Texas will be among those with candidates supported by the Victory Fund in 2018. The Lone Star State currently has only 18 elected and appointed LGBTQ officials, out of 448 nationwide. It is a disproportionately low number based on population, but this year Texas will have a record 35 openly LGBTQ candidates on the ballot.
“We are at the very beginning of our endorsement cycle for 2018, and there are a number of Texans we are reviewing for endorsement,” Parker said. “As of now, we have endorsed one Texan—Gina Ortiz Jones for U.S. Congress—but more are on the way. Stay tuned.”
Richard Holt, a Houstonian who serves as chairman of One Victory, the group’s 501(c)(4) arm, said 2018 will be “the most critical year in a decade” for the Victory Fund.
“We wanted a proven leader who understood the realities of running for office and holding elected office,” Holt told OutSmart. “As the first openly LGBTQ mayor of Houston, Annise was elected citywide nine times. She understands the challenges inherent in running and winning elective office, and she’s ideally positioned to help us fulfill our mission now and in the future. In short, Mayor Parker will lead a focus on the candidate.”
Parker may be the best-known Victory Fund success story from Houston, but the organization has backed many local candidates over the years, including current Harris County district attorney Kim Ogg, district judge Steven Kirkland, and City Council members Mike Laster and Robert Gallegos. In fact, the state’s openly LGBTQ officials are heavily concentrated in Harris County, and the Victory Fund’s annual Houston brunch raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for the organization each year.
Parker, a Houston native, started out in politics as president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. A founding member of what is now known as Equality Texas, Parker was the first openly LGBTQ person elected to City Council before becoming City controller and finally mayor. Her sexual orientation regularly stole the spotlight during her campaigns. In her speech after being elected mayor in 2009, Parker joked that it was not lost on her that she was “the very first mayor of Houston to be . . .a graduate of Rice University.”
Her election made headlines around the world and put Parker and Houston on the map as a progressive blue dot in an otherwise red state. She plans to take some of that influence and expertise with her as she develops new, history-making candidates across the country.
For many, Parker’s ascension to the helm of the Victory Fund comes with the disappointment that she will not be returning to the political spotlight as a 2018 candidate. But she is leaving the door open to future campaigns.
“Time will tell, but it is definitely a possibility,” she says. “I love public service—it’s exhilarating and challenging, and an opportunity to make real change in people’s lives. But Victory Fund’s mission is equally exhilarating and challenging—and holds the promise of pushing forward equality for a community that has been oppressed for almost all of history. That is surely a challenge as well, and I am thrilled to be taking it on.”
Parker said she considered running as a Democrat for Harris County judge in 2018, but opted against it after incumbent Ed Emmett, a friend of hers, announced he would seek re-election. She also considered running for statewide office, including governor.
“We have Lupe Valdez running for governor,” Parker said. “The party’s in good hands there. I may have more political races.”
Parker added that she will not be moving away from Houston, where she lives with her wife, Kathy Hubbard. Before joining the Victory Fund, she stepped down as senior vice president and chief strategy officer at BakerRipley, the Houston-based community-development nonprofit.
“The Victory Fund headquarters is here [in Washington], and I’m going to be spending a lot of time here, but my work as CEO is going to be across the country,” Parker said.
“This was an opportunity to do work I love for an organization that has been extremely supportive of me over the years. I think now more than ever, we need to refocus on electing LGBTQ candidates, because we see how easily and quickly the tremendous gains we’ve made can be reversed.”
This article appears in the January 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.