Parker subpoenas pastors

On Tuesday, the Houston Chronicle noted that Mayor Annise Parker and City Attorney David Feldman have subpoenaed the sermons of prominent pastors who have been a part of ongoing petition efforts against the local non-discrimination ordinance. The NDO, passed last May, prevents discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion and other distinguishing features, as well as sexual orientation and gender identity. Those last two qualities garnered a great deal of controversy both before and after the Houston City Council passed the measure, even prompting a petition drive to force a referendum.

In a still controversial decision, city leaders disqualified most of the signatures provided, saying not enough valid voices signed against the ordinance to compel a referendum. Since then, litigation has been pending and a referendum is still quite possible in the future. I suppose that the city is now trying to cover its behind by proving many of the tactics exhibited by these pastors, who are legally required to remain apolitical, have been unlawful.

On Wednesday, however, Parker distanced herself from the subpoenas, calling them “overly broad” and regretting the incident was handled the way it was. As they likely realized right away, this little bout of theatrics did the Mayor and all supporters of the NDO no favors. In fact, it merely stirred the pot even more, riling up the same group that so vociferously opposed the ordinance and fought it throughout the summer.

National news and opinion sites have been quick to castigate Parker, and she has received 20 bits of negative press for every item of support thus far. Fox News didn’t look too kindly, nor did The Washington Times. Forbes Magazine wrote that the city has “a first amendment problem.” Meanwhile, a columnist for The Washington Post even opined that the whole exercise is a trampling of the first amendment. The whole story is so outrageous at first glance that Snopes.com even ran a feature on it.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for Governor, both made big stinks today as well against this decision.

As a matter of law, I don’t know that Parker did anything too egregious. But beyond the shadow of a doubt, as a matter of policy, it was a foolish move on her office’s part. Fire and brimstone clergy, particularly those who all too often bully others, are remarkably talented at feigning victimization. In a place as religious and conservative as Houston, picking a fight with them will always be a losing proposition.

Parker even noted in a press conference today that these are fairly well-famed pastors, with expansive followings both on television and online. The sermons are easily accessible through less intrusive means than a court order. The whole point of this exercise was for show, and in that department, Parker undoubtedly lost. I’m glad she has backed off from this, hopefully it can cause the press to move past it and focus on some real issues. Typically, on Wednesday nights, I recap the events of the Houston City Council from the preceding morning. But the council did nothing of real note today. Everything revolved around press conferences involving this puny anonymity and the Ebola hysteria, respectively.

Rhymes with Right has more, from the other side of the aisle.

2015 Mayoral election

Since the beginning of the year, I have been intermittently trying to sit down with the prospective candidates for Mayor in 2015. Mayor Annise Parker, of course, is term-limited at that time, meaning that the election will be an open race. At this time, there is only one candidate openly running for Mayor, complete with signs and social media presence, and that is City Councilmember Oliver Pennington (R-District G). However, there are typically about nine other names that keep coming up as likely Mayoral candidates. These individuals range from being completely ready to go, to simply intently looking into the situation. Additionally, there are about two or three other people I have heard mentioned in passing as possible candidates, but never by anyone willing to go on the record. I will only be discussing the former category.

The eight other candidates, in addition to Pennington, are former Congressman Chris Bell (D-TX), City Councilmember Jack Christie (R-At Large 5), Eric Dick (R), City Councilmember Stephen Costello (R-AL1), METRO Chairman Gilbert Garcia (D), City Councilmember Ed Gonzalez (D-District H), former City Attorney Ben Hall (D), City Councilmember Michael Kubosh (R-At Large 3) and State Representative Sylvester Turner (D-Harris County). Among those I have heard passing on the race are Sheriff Adrian Garcia (D), City Controller Ronald Green (D), Laura Murillo and County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez (R).

CLICK HERE TO READ THE FULL FEATURED ARTICLE!

NDO petition fight heads to Texas Supreme Court

The Houston Chronicle reports that opponents of the local non-discrimination ordinance passed by the Houston City Council have taken their case to the Texas Supreme Court. Specifically, they are seeking an emergency order to force the issue onto this November’s ballot, following a contentious referendum petition effort.

As I recently explained, a controversy has erupted over the NDO –which codifies existing Federal and State anti-discrimination statutes (protecting against race, sex and religion, for example) onto local law, as well as extends new protections for LGBT individuals– following an effort to override the City Council, which approved the ordinance 11-6 last May. Under city law, such an ordinance could be placed upon the ballot for a referendum if enough signatures are gathered within 30 days. Opponents claimed they acquired more than enough signatures, but most of them were disqualified, either for not being properly registered to vote or not living within the city limits of Houston. City Secretary Anna Russell originally determined the signatures to pass the threshold, just barely, but a subsequent independent investigation by City Attorney David Feldman reversed this ruling. Feldman specifically challenged the validity of any signatures on a petition page circulated by an improperly registered circulator.

This is the crux of a legal argument made against the initial decision by Feldman and Mayor Annise Parker to not humor a referendum on this topic. Originally, the opponents filed in State District Court, and received a temporary restraining order by ancillary Judge Jeff Shadwick (R-55th). However, this order was lifted when the case went to the court of Judge Robert Schaffer (D-152nd), and mandamus was denied by the Court of Appeals. As I had understood the mutually agreed upon result to be, a longer hearing would be held on the matter in January 2015, and the issue would not be on the ballot this year. City officials have even stated that the full deadline to place things on a November ballot is August 18th, which is now in the past.

Evidently, plaintiff Jared Woodfill did not get the memorandum. He is seeking, as expedited as possible, mandamus from the Texas Supreme Court, ordering the City to certify Russell’s –and not Feldman’s or Parker’s– petition decision, thus placing this matter on a ballot. Woodfill, a former Chairman of the Harris County Republican Party, evidently is not sold by the whole “deadline to place on the ballot” idea. Go figure.

Those sagacious followers of this publication I always reference will indubitably know I am skeptical of the life of the NDO if it is ever put up on a referendum. Young people and other socially liberal cohorts just don’t get off their butts on go to a voting booth. They’re just lazy, come election day; there’s no way around it. Opponents of this ordinance, though, and other broadly Tea Party aligned groups, would figuratively walk over hot coals in order to vote.

I had thought, however, that the best chances the NDO would have would be if the referendum were held this November, as opposed to next November or next May. However, its chances would be based on an aggressive and effective campaign to save the NDO. Given that it’s nearly Labor Day and such a campaign is not existent, those bets would surely be off.

All in all, my main point is that this is a mess, and while the Texas Supreme Court may be unpredictable, there is nothing to say the partisan nature of the court should lead it to intervene. The two Courts of Appeals in the Houston area are, sans one Democrat, completely filled with Republicans, and they pointedly denied mandamus. Thus, there is no reason necessarily to think that anything rash will occur. But I’ve been wrong before.

NDO dies another day

Pardon the brief interregnum, I have spent the entire weekend moving into a new apartment in Austin. I am returning tomorrow (Sunday) back to Houston for one last week home, before shipping up for yet another semester of college. Color me content.

The biggest local news that has transpired within this time has been an important update on Houston’s recent non-discrimination ordinance, now casually known as HERO (Houston Equal Rights Ordinance). As I noted last week, a State District Judge (Jeff Shadwick) put a temporary restraining order on the law as a part of ongoing litigation over a recall effort. At the heart of the issue is whether opponents of the law compiled enough legally usable signatures to force a referendum on the matter. In recent days, considerably urgency has been placed upon this issue, given that many wanted a vote from Houstonians this November. Strangely enough, at least publicly, this appeared to be the outcome both sides wanted. While Mayor Annise Parker decided opponents were insufficient in their recall efforts, opponents have sought an injunction from the courts.

While Shadwick (a Republican) conducted the ancillary hearing on the TRO, the full hearing was in the court of State District Judge Robert Schaffer (a Democrat). He pointedly refused to issue the injunction sought by opponents, just as the 14th Court of Appeals declined to certify the referendum petitions. The end result, which both sides claimed as a victory, was that a longer hearing will take place in January of 2015. The non-discrimination ordinance will not be on November’s ballot.

The astute will surely know I am a wholehearted supporter of the NDO, notwithstanding the countless problems I had with its roll-out. The law itself protects against discrimination in all forms, including against the LGBT community. Individual complaints with the ordinance such as the asinine “men in the women’s restroom” fable are especially troubling. The bathroom is one of the easiest references to stir trouble and brew fear. It happened with the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and Sissy Farenthold even recently told me that it happened in the 1950s to keep women out of jury pools. For some reason, the mixing of the sexes in a restroom is a cardinal sin like no other, but I digress.

My longwinded point here is that the NDO will not be enforced between now and January, at least. How in the world is that a win for supporters? All the discrimination going on in this city will either continue with impunity or lack an efficient and cheap mode of recourse at City Hall.

Furthermore, if this comes up for a referendum in 2015, it will almost certainly go down in flames. Let me repeat, if the City is eventually forced to certify the repeal petitions, the NDO is dead. The best chance to beat back a referendum would have been this November, when I would have said a perilously close election occurred. The thing about midterm elections such as this year’s is that 40% of the population already votes, which already counts every tried-and-true socially conservative voice out there. However, in next year’s Mayoral election, turnout will likely be about 15%, while a freestanding election in May would probably only garner turnout in the single digits. As a general rule, the smaller the electorate, the whiter and more conservative it is. Furthermore, a small voting pool would allow for the ordinance’s opponents to flood the pools with their dedicated supporters in a way that proponents simply would not.

Additionally, if everything goes to heck, the worst case scenario this November is not nearly as bad as the worst-case next November. If the ordinance is overturned on a referendum any time, it would be an egregious miscarriage of justice that this city would wear as a scarlet letter for many years to come. But that would be the extent of the damage this November, because progressive causes are almost certain to get a shellacking in three months anyways. The Democrats literally cannot win any fewer offices in Harris County, for example, this year than they did in 2010.

But in 2015, a radically more socially conservative electorate could have a damaging effect upon not only the Mayor’s race, but Council races as well. Be careful what you wish for, indeed.

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.

NDO Public Session held

I climbed the steps of City Hall today for the first time in a couple months. I did not have a surplus of time, so I only got to peak my head into the very beginning of the public session. For those unfamiliar, the City Council is required by law to listen to members of the public on agenda and non-agenda items weekly. Anyone in the city may call the City Secretary and receive at least 60 seconds of speaking time before the Council. This week, the discussion centered unanimously around the non-discrimination ordinance being considered by the Council, which I have written about extensively in the past. In short, the ordinance codifies existing Federal regulations against discrimination into local law, as well as expand them to protect both sexual orientation and gender identity.

There were over 80 speakers on this ordinance, with over 4/5ths of them being supportive thereof. Elected officials, such as State Senator John Whitmire, Sheriff Adrian Garcia, State Representative Garnet Coleman and State Representative Carol Alvarado lent their support in person. Other elected officials, such as State Senator Rodney Ellis, State Senator Sylvia Garcia and State Representative Sylvester Turner, have also been quite supportive, but did not make an appearance in person. Another who did, however, was former Congressman Chris Bell, a likely Mayoral candidate in 2015 (along with Turner and, possibly, Garcia). A number of other stalwarts in the community spoke up today, though perhaps my favorite speaker was Sissy Farenthold. Simply put, she was Ann Richards before there was Ann Richards, serving at one time as the only female member of the Legislature and coming heartbreakingly close to winning the Democratic nomination for Governor in the 1970s.

Click here to read about more supporters, opponents, and the Councilmembers’ reactions!

I’m back!!

After seven tests and two essays, my summer has officially begun. I’m going to be undertaking two main projects this summer, one starting on Monday and one in June, after which the two will run concurrently until late August. I’ll have more on this on Sunday and next month, respectively. Obviously, studying for tests is hard, but these past eight days have been some of the most stressful in recent memory because I have been unable to contribute to Texpatriate. Fear not, regular posting will continue perpetually at this time. At this point, my intent is to publish early the morning before I head out for the day. Anyways, I’d like to briefly touch upon a few of the major actions that have occurred since I signed off.

First and foremost, a public hearing was held over the proposed non-discrimination ordinance at City Hall. The results were predictable, to say the least, with the usual suspects showing up and pontificating the same-old trite arguments about religious liberty and such. The number of Councilmembers on the fence appeared to have broadened, and includes such officeholders I have named before such as Michael Kubosh, C.O. Bradford and Jack Christie. Additionally, it includes a few new names, especially Richard Nguyen. I’ll probably have a little more about this soon, but the general point is obviously to prohibit discrimination against LGBT people from both governmental agencies and private employers. Much of the argument that this provision is somehow anti-business has been put to bed after the Greater Houston Partnership backed the ordinance. Off the Kuff and Texas Leftist have more.

Please click here to see more!