The AL4 cast shows up

The Houston Chronicle reports that a few new names have been added to the candidate roster for one of the Houston City Council’s open At-Large seats, specifically position #4, which is held by term-limited Councilmember C.O. Bradford (D-At Large 4). The seat has recently been held by a series of African-American representatives; even lead the standard-bearing Chronicle has noted this. Back in December, I noted that Laurie Robinson — a previous candidate for the city council — will be running for this position. Now, two more names have entered the fold: Amanda Edwards and Larry Blackmon.

Edwards is an attorney at a downtown blue-chip firm, whereas Blackmon is a retired teacher. Both have a number of connections in the local political scene, but they are not especially significant compared to Robinson’s. All three are fairly dependable Democrats, but each have ways of distinguishing themselves. Robinson, for example, ran against a fellow Democratic Councilmember, Jolanda Jones (AL5), when she ran in 2011 (Councilmember Jack Christie (R-At Large 5) also ran, and was the eventual winner). I was not old enough to vote in that election, but I covered the races with some familiarity, and would have voted for Robinson if I had been eligible. She garnered the endorsement of The Young Independents Club of Emery High School, for what it’s worth.

As the Chronicle article notes, this activity is relatively recent compared to the other open At-Large seat, position #1, which is being vacated by term-limited Councilmember Stephen Costello (R-At Large 1), who is also running for mayor. In that race, Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Lane Lewis, HCC Trustee Chris Oliver, Trebor Gordon, Michael “Griff” Griffin, Philippe Nassif and Jenifer Pool will face off.

For the other At-Large races, there aren’t many surprises. Former Councilmember Andrew Burks (D-At Large 2) will seek a rematch against Councilmember David Robinson (D-At Large 2), who defeated him in 2013. Councilmember Michael Kubosh (R-At Large 3) will cruise to re-election with minimal or nonexistent opposition. Perhaps the most intriguing contest is the last at-large position. Christie is reportedly running for mayor, or at least seriously thinking about it, even though he is still eligible for one more term. If he does run, it will create a third open seat. I know of one individual who is all-but-officially running for AL5, Christie or not, but I am not sure if she is willing to go on record yet. For those of you asking, my father will not be running again for the post.

As for AL4 in particular, I have two main thoughts. The first is to not be surprised if yet another candidate jumps in. I have heard about one individual in particular who has intently been looking over the race, and could really make a splash. Second, we officially have a citywide contest with more than one female candidate! In a city where the majority of the council was once comprised of women, female participation in elected municipal office has precipitously dropped. Zero women are, at press time, running for either Mayor or City Controller; a frightfully sad statistic.

In the next few days, when I have time, I will create one of my perennial side pages in preparation for the 2015 Election. Stay tuned!

Brains & Eggs, Dos Centavos and Off the Kuff have more.

Parker, Councilmembers campaign against HB2

KROI (News 92 FM) reports that Mayor Annise Parker and seven members of the Houston City Council have signed a letter to the State Legislature lambasting HB2, the omnibus anti-abortion bill that State Senator Wendy Davis (D-Tarrant County) famously filibustered last year. Specifically, they made a somewhat quixotic request for the Legislature to repeal the law, which is slated to close the vast majority of the abortion-providing clinics throughout the State. As I have explained countless times in the past, the law accomplishes four things. It requires certain inducing drugs to be taken the day before the procedure, it requires the doctors administering these procedures to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital and it bans abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. However, the most onerous restriction is requiring all clinics to adhere to the standards of ambulatory surgical centers. This regulation will slash the number of clinics in the State from dozens to six or seven, all located within Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston or San Antonio.

“When the Texas legislature passed HB2, we knew Houston residents could be harmed by it,” says the letter. “We also knew that Houston would become one of the very few places left to get an abortion (and in some cases, any reproductive health care) in Texas, and that women’s health and lives would be put at risk because of that.”

In addition to Parker, seven members of the City Council supported the letter and signed their names to it. City Councilmembers Jerry Davis (D-District B), Ellen Cohen (D-District C), Ed Gonzalez (D-District H), Robert Gallegos (D-District I), Mike Laster (D-District J), Stephen Costello (R-At Large 1) and David Robinson (D-At Large 2) affixed their signatures.

The letter was likely compelled after Wendy Davis, now the Democratic nominee for Governor, visited City Hall on Monday, in order to give a speech on rape kit backlogs and how she has handled this issue in the past. Contrary to what some national publications, namely Salon Magazine, have said on this matter, the City of Houston or the Houston City Council did not officially take any action against HB2. Rather, the Mayor and a minority of Councilmembers individually expressed their personal opinions.

As I have said extensively in the past, Parker has taken a much stronger interest in seemingly non-local issues since the start of her second term, much less her third. By taking actions such as these, to those as innocuous as speaking at the State Democratic Convention, Parker insists that she is a force to be reckoned with in the future. It is an open secret around Bagby Street that the Mayor has statewide ambitions, and giving the left some red meat is a necessity along the way.

The Councilmembers, meanwhile, were a bit more surprising. Since abortion is not an issue that ever comes up on the agenda of a City Council meeting, I pass no judgment on whether a Councilmember supports such a letter or not. But the support of Councilmember Costello in particular was perhaps the most surprising.

Costello is a registered Republican, though he has a left-of-center streak on the City Council that has largely governed his representation. Last year, Texpatriate even rated him the best member of the City Council overall. But progressive positions on food deserts and budgets are a very far cry from a left-of-center perspective on the most polarized political issue. It is yet another open secret that Costello wants to run for Mayor, along with (among Councilmembers) Oliver Pennington and Jack Christie. However, Pennington and Christie, also Republicans, pointedly did not sign this letter.

The scuttlebutt around town is that Costello will be moving a few steps to the right for his Mayoral campaign, in order to distinguish him from partisan Democratic candidates and ostensibly appeal to the middle. But between his signature on this letter and his blockbuster vote for the non-discrimination ordinance, it looks less and less likely that that is the case. Good! It is welcome news to see Costello repudiating his party on both economic and social issues. I wish more Republicans would do the same.

A summer of HERO

Note: For whatever reason, I felt like writing what I saw fit as a timeline. I promise there is some original commentary in here, so if you are not inclined to read my overview, just skip about five paragraphs down.

This is the blog post I have been waiting all summer to write. Once again, I apologize for not attentively following this issue in print since May. As I explained back then, I have been employed this summer in public relations projects involving ongoing issues at City Hall (the word “lobbying” has been brought up by detractors of mine on a number of occasions, though it remains to be said that I am not a registered lobbyist nor have I done anything that would necessitate such a designation). Thus, I voluntarily decided to withdraw myself from commentating on other ongoing issues. However, considering the issue I was working on has had a final council vote (check my Facebook page for my personal thoughts on that matter–largely positive!!), and my employment has shifted to PR/marketing aimed toward the general public, my conflicts have been removed.

The obvious updates since I stopped writing on this issue in May is that the non-discrimination ordinance passed (duh!). While the initial draft of the bill only required those private employers with more than 50 employees to adhere to the law, an amendment by Councilmember Robert Gallegos (D-District I) was offered that lowered the threshold to 15 employees. In review, the law prohibits discrimination against a person in private or public employment, as well as public accommodations, on the basis of the plethora of demographic groups protected on Federal law (race, sex, religion, etc),  in addition to sexual orientation and gender identity. City Hall can’t fire you for being black, Doe & Doe (Attorneys at Law) can’t fire you for being transgendered and Acme Anvils can’t put a sign on their front door that says “Gays not welcome.” In addition to the Gallegos amendment, Councilmember Jerry Davis (D-District B), under blessing of the Mayor, nixed a specific provision detailing the rights of transgendered persons to use the bathroom of their gender identity, not necessarily their biological sex. It is worth noting, however, that under the broad language of the ordinance, that same bathroom language is in effect still valid.

When all was said and done, the ordinance passed 11-6. Councilmembers Davis, Ellen Cohen (D-District C), Richard Nguyen (R-District F), Ed Gonzalez (D-District H), Gallegos, Mike Laster (D-District J), Larry Green (D-District K), Stephen Costello (R-At Large 1), David Robinson (D-At Large 2) and C.O. Bradford (D-At Large 4) voted in favor. Councilmembers Brenda Stardig (R-District A), Dwight Boykins (D-District D), Dave Martin (R-District E), Oliver Pennington (R-District G), Michael Kubosh (R-At Large 3) and Jack Christie (R-At Large 5) voted against.

Opponents of the ordinance congregated around claims of “religious liberty,” claiming that if being gay went against one’s religious views, being forced to accommodate someone would be immoral to them. They came back with a vengeance, circulating petitions to force a referendum on this bill. A few weeks ago, they submitted 50,000 signatures, far more than the required 17,000 to require a referendum. However, proponents of the ordinance independently verified all the signatories, and found the petitions riddled with violations of the rules. While there were surely many signatories who were not City of Houston voters, thousands more were discounted because the distributors of the petition for that page was not properly credentialed, which invalidated all the signatures on said page. Under such strict scrutiny, Mayor Annise Parker and City Attorney Dave Feldman held that the non-discrimination ordinance (now colloquially known as HERO, or the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, by the way) would not be challenged on the ballot. Opponents expeditiously marched to the courthouse.

After a little bit of jockeying back and forward between State and Federal court, the dispute landed in (State Civil) 55th District Judge Jeff Shadwick’s court. A Republican, he placed a temporary restraining order on the enforcement of the law (redundant, for what it’s worth, because Parker had already enjoined enforcement) and scheduled a hearing on the validity of the petitions for August 15th. August 18th is the deadline, as I understand it, for something to be placed on the ballot this November.

My first and most obvious stipulation is that I am absolutely overjoyed that this measure passed, and I think that Houston is all the better for it. In an ideal world, there shouldn’t even be the 15 employee threshold (though certainly an exception for religious institutions and non-profits). That being said, there are some legitimate arguments against this proposal. Persuasive to me? Absolutely not. But legitimate nonetheless.

I think the best argument there was centered on the ordinance’s sheer unpopularity in the general public. In my opinion, this runs hand and hand with some major fumbles on the part of the Mayor. First and foremost, she made the ordinance nearly 100% about the LGBT community, when the ordinance was about everyone. Indubitably, rights for LGBT people are unbelievably important and even as a standalone issue should be fought for relentlessly, but so should Civil Rights for African-Americans and Hispanics, as well as protections by age, veterans status, disability and religion, to name a few. Perhaps the worst moment was when she addressed a commentator at public session by noting that the ordinance was “personal” for her. Simply put, it’s not about her. It’s about everyone. And by claiming it is about her and the LGBT community, she provides unneeded fodder for detractors to overturn the ordinance in a referendum.

Additionally, criticism was misplaced, and that is a huge understatement. The amount of nastiness directed toward Councilmember Brenda Stardig in particular was simply appalling. I will be the first to admit that I disagreed with Stardig’s vote, but that does not justify personal rhetorical attacks. Her office’s Facebook page was overrun with mean-spirited comments and she was singled out by a couple of commentators. Stardig never said she would support a non-discrimination ordinance and her constituency was overwhelmingly opposed. I fail to see the controversy here.

Like Stardig, all but two of the Councilmembers who voted no made no such earlier promise, and by-and-large came from constituencies opposing this ordinance. The two big exceptions were Dwight Boykins and Jack Christie.

With Christie, I can’t say I’m surprised. He had been utterly non-committal throughout last year’s campaign about supporting such an ordinance, even in response to incessant queries by his two opponents (Disclosure: one of them, James Horwitz, is my father), who were both big supporters of a non-discrimination ordinance and same-sex marriage. For some reason, last election cycle the GLBT Caucus was figuratively in love with Christie, not only endorsing him but campaigning for him vigorously against two liberal Democratic opponents. I don’t want to say, “I told you so,” but…you know the rest. It’s definitely not Christie’s fault, though. He would only say that he supported a non-discrimination ordinance in very broad terms, and one could tell the bulk of his issues revolved around lowering the employee threshold to 15. It’s the fault of those who voted for him, expecting him to do something different. Don’t blame a politician for voting one’s district, but definitely don’t do so for voting one’s conscious–when the evidence previously pointed to the conclusion. It comes off as naive.

Now, Dwight Boykins is a whole other story. Throughout the campaign, he triumphantly touted his support for LGBT rights and has n0t at all been hesitant about any of it. Simply put, he lied. I understand that he thought his district was against it, but if you think like that, don’t talk to interest groups day in and day out about how you think LGBT rights should be a civil rights issue. Both are good enough selections, but you can only choose one. Boykins attempted to choose both, and as such, now appears for what he is: a giant hypocrite.

But perhaps one of the biggest disappointments in all this has been the Mayor. Simply put, she was a “sore-winner.” Instead of being gracious in victory and moving on to the referendum (which will be the real battle), she kept harping on bumping the margins up on the final vote. Even after the final vote, she showed favorites to the ordinances proponents and snubbed the opponents in discourteous and unprofessional ways.

In a City Council meeting in late June, Kubosh even made a comment at Council about how he should agree with the Mayor more often, so that “he too might get his bottle of wine.” At this point, coos and shrieks from council staff could be heard throughout the room. Obviously, I was curious as to what he was referencing, so I asked around. It turns out that the Mayor bought cheap bottles of red wine for all the Councilmembers who voted with her on the NDO, conspicuously snubbing those who did not. That type of antic –giving little treats in a very obvious fashion to your allies after they vote with you– is reminiscent of the petty, sophomoric tactics used by second-rate lobbyists, not the decorum expected of the Mayor.

But all this is just semantics, which in the grand scheme of things is rather unimportant. Probably the most egregious error in this whole process was the Mayor not focusing on the almost mandatory referendum. At the end of the day, the fact is that the City Secretary has noted that the number of valid signatures are above the minimum. Furthermore, when it comes to the jurisprudence of the matter, strict requirements for those circulating petitions to be registered voters are likely too onerous to stand up in court. A referendum is coming, and the best scenario is for it to be in November 2014. If it happens in May 2015, it will almost certainly fail. It is happens in November 2015, it will also likely fail, and could negatively affect City elections vis-a-vis progressive candidates.

But enough about just negative sentiment. At the end of the day, the courageous men and women at the GLBT Caucus and other interests did yeoman’s work in advancing this positive piece of legislation. I’m a bit of pessimist and a cynic, so I will also find things to gripe about, but that does not change the reality that a very good ordinance passed, an even stronger one than San Antonio’s! The process may have been muddied, and the long road is not even over yet, but if this holds up in a referendum, it will be Mayor Annise Parker’s lasting legacy as Mayor. It will be a darn good one.

As always, my fellow bloggers have provided awesome commentary on this issue. Brains & Eggs, Dos Centavos, Off the Kuff and Texas Leftist all give great perspectives on the left, while Big Jolly Politics and Rhymes with Right do the same on the right.

Majority of Councilmembers support NDO

As I reported yesterday, the first real draft proposal of Houston’s non-discrimination ordinance has officially been introduced to the City Council and unveiled to the general public. Longtime followers of the saga could probably explain it as well as me at this point, but the ordinance does three basic things. First, it bans discrimination against LGBT people (among countless other demographics, all of which are already protected under Federal Law) in government sectors. Second, discrimination is banned in businesses, both in employment and public accommodation. The anecdote I keep using is that a restaurant would not be able to deny service to a gay patron, nor fire a lesbian waitress for coming out to her boss. That last part, extending the ordinance’s protections to private employment, was a hard-fought victory for the GLBT caucus in Houston, as well as all opponents of homophobia.

Mayor Annise Parker was originally tepid on this provision because there were ostensibly not enough Councilmembers supporting it. A few weeks ago, my sources counted eight supporters of private employment protections in the NDO (Mayor Annise Parker and CMs Stephen Costello, David Robinson, Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, Ed Gonzalez, Robert Gallegos and Mike Laster). This was exactly one vote shy of the needed majority for passage. However, a couple more Councilmembers have now gone out in the open supporting such legislation, giving it the green light to becoming law.

Click here to see which Councimembers are now supportive!

Parker pulls an Obama

This is a few days late, I have had a whirlwind of a weekend in Houston, but I felt that this story was specifically too important to ignore. In a recent speech and press release, Mayor Annise Parker outlined her proposals for a comprehensive non-discrimination ordinance protecting LGBT rights. The only problem with this, of course, it is not all that comprehensive. Texas Leftist sums up the position somewhat well, as does Lone Star Q. In short, it covers both public employment and private corporations providing public accommodations. However, it does not cover private employment. This means, simply put, that most people could continue to be fired in Houston just for being gay.

Ostensibly, Parker sold out on this important detail because she did not have the votes on the council. It is important to note, however, that the comprehensive NDOs are not as ubiquitous as many may think. Only Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth fully ban the private employer discrimination, whereas El Paso and San Antonio have ordinances similar to the one Mayor Parker has proposed. For all of Julian Castro’s accolades in his past last year for a comprehensive NDO, it did not actually go all that far in comparison.

Click here to read an analysis of how things stand at City Hall!

Parker names Committee chairs

Shortly after the inauguration nearly two weeks ago (wow, time flies), City Councilmember Stephen Costello announced he had been selected as the Chair of the Finance & Budget Committee for the second straight term. Today, as the Houston Chronicle reports, the Mayor appointed Chairs and Vice-Chairs to the remaining seven committees.

First up, Parker creates a Subcommittee within Costello’s budget committee that will deal with Pensions and Health Benefits. Councilmember Dave Martin, a conservative with somewhat right-wing views on the guaranteed benefits, will Chair this subcommittee. The decision is strange for Parker, as she has often sought a middle ground on this budgetary matter, with views typically aligning with the far more moderate Republican (Costello). Still, sometimes these chairmanships are nothing more than empty titles, so it is possible I might be reading too much into it. Meanwhile, Councilmember Jerry Davis, who is now the Vice-Mayor Pro Tem, will also serve as the Vice Chair of Costello’s Budget and Fiscal Committee.

Councilmember Ed Gonzalez, who previously Chaired the Public Safety Committee, will continue in that position for his final term. Gonzalez also serves as the Mayor Pro Tem. This committee will consider at least one high-profile issue this term, the issue of whether or not to ban texting while driving. Councilmember Brenda Stardig, another Republican with ties to Parker, was named the Vice-Chair of this committee.

Click here to read more!

Parker inaugurated again

This morning, I attended the official Houston inauguration at the Wortham Center. Mayor Annise Parker and City Controller Ronald Green were both inaugurated for their third and final two-year term in office. Additionally, the new City Council were initiated and took office themselves. Among the new additions to the Council were David Robinson and Michael Kubosh in At-large seats and Dwight Boykins, Richard Nguyen and Robert Gallegos in district seats. Brenda Stardig, who has previously served, also took office once more after a two year hiatus.

Parker and Green both had the oath of office administered by Vanessa Gilmore, a local Federal Judge. Parker then delivered a rather brief inaugural speech that was somewhat light on specifics. She did mention, quite specifically, the passage of a non-discrimination ordinance protecting LGBT people. This move was met with only tepid applause from a fraction of the City Council, including the inconspicuous absence of applause from Councilmember Bradford. Actions meant to assuage the damage caused by hurricanes (read: Ike Dike) were also explicitly referenced, as was further improvement to roads and drainage. Perhaps the biggest shock of the day occurred when Parker announced her intention to “completely eliminate chronic homelessness.” This line drew big applause from individuals who have disagreed profoundly with the Mayor in the past, including, most notably, Michael Kubosh.

Click here to read more!