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.