In Houston, an Election About Sexual Orientation

Allow me to make a provocative claim: The Houston mayoral election was ever bit as much about sexual orientation as the Atlanta mayoral election was ...
by | December 14, 2009

Allow me to make a provocative claim: The Houston mayoral election was ever bit as much about sexual orientation as the Atlanta mayoral election was about race.

On Saturday, Annise Parker, Houston's City Controller, was elected mayor. For most of the campaign, Parker's sexual orientation (she's an open lesbian) was treated as little more than a subplot. The press mentioned it routinely, but mainly because there was so little else to distinguish the candidates from one another. In a field that mainly included ideologically similar Democrats, Parker's sexual orientation was a noteworthy biographical detail. That was about it.

In contrast, the Atlanta contest was treated from the beginning as a race about race. While there were plenty of serious issues in Atlanta (financial management, crime), the grand narrative of the contest was whether the city would elect a white mayor for the first time in decades.

And, in Atlanta, you only have to look at the map of the election results to know that race did end up playing a large role. Mary Norwood, who is white, dominated the overwhelmingly white Northern part of the city. Kasim Reed, who is black, dominated the overwhelmingly black Southern part of the city. Reed won, barely.

Still, it's worth noting that in Atlanta when an independent group circulated a memo suggesting it was important to elect a black mayor, all of the major candidates denounced it. The main way that the candidates and their campaigns addressed race was to say that it was not an issue -- and then to accuse opponents of injecting race into the campaign.

For most of the election, the contest in Houston was similar to the one in Atlanta. None of the candidates argued that Parker's sexual orientation ought to be an issue. But in the runoff campaign, after social conservative activist Steven Hotze endorsed Gene Locke (Parker's opponent), the tenor of the campaign changed. From the New York Times:

But in the final week of the campaign, Ms. Parker's sexuality has emerged as an issue. A group of black pastors spoke out against Ms. Parker because of what they called her gay agenda. On Monday, Mr. Locke, who is black, came under fire after the revelation that two members of his finance committee made $20,000 donations to the political action committee of Stephen Hotze, an anti-gay advocate.

Mr. Hotze sent out mailings that urged potential voters to reject the candidate endorsed by the "gay and lesbian political caucus." A flier put out by David Wilson, another opponent of gay rights, shows Ms. Parker with her longtime partner by her side, with the headline: "Is this the image Houston wants to portray?"

Mr. Locke has tried to distance himself from these attacks and has denied that he financed Mr. Hotze's attack advertisements.

While social conservatives rallied to Locke, gay rights groups marshaled support for Parker. From the Houston Chronicle:

Nevertheless, support from gay groups was vital to her effort. The political action committee of the Washington-based Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund bundled donations for Parker totaling more than $200,000. Gay groups and individuals were steadfast campaign workers. More than 2,000 volunteers knocked on doors, made calls, posted signs and provided what one volunteer called "the elbow grease" for the campaign.

I can't point to a map that demonstrates that sexual orientation was a decisive factor in the Houston mayoral race. It probably wasn't.

On the other hand, no one that I know was sending out mailers with a picture of Kasim Reed or Mary Norwood that said, "Is this the image Atlanta wants to portray?" Nor was there an African-American Victory Fund or White Victory Fund involved in the contest.

Perhaps that shows that the country is further along in resolving the issues of race than it is the issues of sexual orientation. Then again, it's just as possible that the politics of race are today more covert than the politics of sexual orientation, but every bit as potent.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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