The contours of the HERO fight

We’ll see how this goes.


When City Council sent Houston’s embattled equal rights ordinance to the November ballot two weeks ago, the vote raised the curtain on dueling campaigns that had been bracing in the wings for a political showdown more than a year in the making.

Council’s 12-5 vote to affirm the ordinance and place it on the ballot, part of a Texas Supreme Court order, followed months of heated back-and-forth in City Hall and various Harris County courtrooms. By the next week, campaign managers had been selected, ads were drafted and pollsters were working to take the pulse of voters.

Supporters quickly appealed to Houston-native and superstar Beyoncé on Twitter for a plug. Opponents, meanwhile, touted presidential candidate Rand Paul’s remarks during the national GOP debates chiding Mayor Annise Parker, though not by name, for a political fumble during the court case surrounding the law. Both camps warned that the eyes of the nation are on Houston.

Political scientists, however, said that is a tad dramatic; unless the law is repealed, the fight over Houston’s non-discrimination law will amount to a largely local affair bolstered by some national money.

Opponents will push a public safety campaign driven by the perceived threat that male sexual predators dressed in drag will use the law as cover to enter women’s restrooms. Supporters, meanwhile, will seek to debunk that and warn that repealing the law would irreparably harm the city’s image.

Both groups said they will need to spend at least $2 million to pepper voters with targeted direct mail and a few choice ads.

“HERO will be competing head to head with the mayoral election for oxygen and energy,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones. “There’s only so much space in an election like this, and a lot of that space is going to be occupied by HERO because it’s a charged issue. It’s going to make it even more difficult for down-ballot races to emerge and obtain the attention of voters.”


At dueling launch events last week, both sides offered a glimpse of the campaigns to come.

On Wednesday, equal rights ordinance supporters unveiled the “Houston Unites” campaign.

Leslie Jackson, the minister of education at Cathedral of Hope church in Midtown, said opponents “confuse religious freedom with the freedom to discriminate.”

“Religious faith does not undermine the value of equality for all under the law,” Jackson said. “Religious faith demands it. As a Christian minister, I must oppose misguided efforts to repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.”

The task for supporters, Campaign Manager Richard Carlbom said, is twofold: explaining the ramifications if the ordinance is repealed and countering opponents’ contention that male sexual predators will use the ordinance to enter women’s restrooms.

“Houston and Houstonians don’t believe in discrimination, and so, HERO simply says everybody should be free from discrimination and that’s why folks should support it,” Carlbom said.

The challenge for supporters is to fend off the public safety allegations without losing their own message, University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said. The business angle – that events such as the Super Bowl and Final Four could go elsewhere in the event of repeal – likely will factor into supporters’ argument, he said.

The onus, he said, largely falls on opponents of the ordinance to turn the tide as LGBT issues continue to pick up public support. As the ordinance was embroiled in litigation, a slew of states and then the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage.

“In part, because it’s hard to get people to undo something, opponents have a harder job,” Rottinghaus said. “Once the inertia is developed in a certain direction, it’s hard to get people to do something different.”

Jared Woodfill, former Harris County GOP chairman and a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the ordinance, said opponents would target female voters and men concerned about the safety of their wives and daughters. The pitch to voters, Woodfill said, is simple: “No men in women’s restrooms.”

Yeah, that’s exactly how I thought the opposition would go. The good news, I suppose, is that I really don’t think the leaders of the opposition are capable of keeping their frothing homophobia under wraps, and I think that will hurt them. I agree with Campos that the more they let Steven Hotze talk, the better it will be for HERO supporters. But it’s increasingly clear to me that the bathroom argument has taken hold, and has been internalized by a lot of people. I don’t think facts are going to help counter that. To the extent that persuasion is part of the pro-HERO campaign, I think it has to be about making people feel that supporting HERO is the right thing – the Houston thing – to do. I’m hopeful, but there’s an awful lot that can go wrong, and a lot at stake. BOR has more.

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15 Responses to The contours of the HERO fight

  1. voter_worker says:

    “Political scientists, however, said that is a tad dramatic; unless the law is repealed, the fight over Houston’s non-discrimination law will amount to a largely local affair bolstered by some national money.”

    Don’t underestimate the potential for national interest and involvement in this election. I just finished reading a post in a blog with a nationwide audience outlining the history of how we came to be having an election, pointing out that Houston will be the nation’s only large city without such an ordinance if it is repealed, listing some of the Fortune 500 companies in town and their high human rights scores, and finally pointing out the NBA and NFL events that could potentially be relocated in the event of a repeal. For good measure they included a summary of inflammatory statements from Dr. Hotze, who allegedly compared gay people to Nazis and urged driving “homofascists” and supposed “gay satanic cults” out of Houston and back to San Francisco in his remarks at the recent kickoff of the “Faith Family Freedom Tour” at the Hilton Post Oak. The article also characterized the situation as having the potential to be the most expensive local human rights election battle in the nation’s history. That may or may not pan out, but it’s an indication of outsiders focusing on the magnitude of the contest.

  2. Paul Kubosh says:

    Hate never works. I will be glad when this is over.

  3. voter_worker says:

    Yes, I’m with you on both of those statements. One of those Facebook “memes” came by this morning that’s apropos. “Always take the high road, there’s less traffic.”

  4. Paul Kubosh says:

    This just in….


    won again. Man he is just to good. Ballot language must be changed to follow the Charter.

    What does it tell you when City Council and the Mayor get ordered to do something twice. The way I see it she is just as bad as the Clerk who wouldn’t issue the Marriage License. Mayor Parker should have to pay for


    attorney fees.

  5. Jules says:

    Paul, agree that Parker has done a terrible job on this, and this is something she wants. Just because Parker can bully her employees into interpreting the law her way doesn’t mean it’s right. Wasn’t HERO one of her justifications for giving former city attorney Feldman a huge raise?

    After reading the charter, I agree with the Texas Supreme Court.

    What can the City do at this point? The deadline to put stuff on the ballot is the 24th.

  6. Mainstream says:

    Today’s Supreme Court decision is a split one. The Court will allow the ordinance to be identified as the “Houston Equal Rights Ordinance” on the ballot, which Woodfill and the other plaintiffs objected to.

    I have not followed the subtleties of all this election law, but I do recall that in the vote regarding the repeal of the racial preferences on Houston contracting programs back in the 1990s, a vote YES was a vote to remove racial preferences.

  7. Jules says:

    split or not, does the city have time to put together properly worded ballot language by the deadline?

  8. voter_worker says:

    Can City Council hold a “special session” type meeting? We may be in murky waters because of the deadline of August 24 (this coming Monday).

  9. Jules says:

    they have to publish an agenda x amount of time before a meeting too… not sure of the details…there is a press conference sometime today….

  10. Paul Kubosh says:

    They will have time. It has to be print ready for Stan Stanart by the 31st. What would be real interesting is what if Parker did nothing? Wouldn’t it be City Council that would be held in contempt?

  11. Jules says:

    Paul, are you saying the real deadline is the 31st?

  12. Paul Kubosh says:

    My understanding is yes. However, don’t take that to the bank. Print ready on 8/31 what ever Print ready means.

  13. Julain Deleon says:

    I do not think this is a big deal considering the Diversity of Houston and electing a Lesbian Mayor 3 years in a row. City Council can voted it in or it will be voted in at the polls. Not sure why some are spending so much time on this.

    If people are worried about men dressing up like a woman to into the ladies restroom to do whatever — it is illegal! As for transexuls going into the bathroom they identify with, it happens everyday and most do not even notice it!

    This is no big deal!

  14. J says:

    Mainstream — the 1990s vote may not have had anyone look at what the City Charter requires and challenge it. So it may just have been wrong. In the charter article on voter initiatives and referendums, when an ordinance is challenged by petition and City Council puts it on the ballot, there is a clear requirement:
    Section 5. – Form of Ballots.
    The ballots used when voting upon such proposed and referred ordinances, resolutions or measures shall set forth their nature sufficiently to identify them, and shall also set forth upon separate lines the words “For the Ordinance” and “Against the Ordinance”

    Couldn’t be clearer. You don’t vote on repeal; you vote on the ordinance.

    And I concur on the split decision point: the Texas Supreme Court showed it wasn’t just playing politics and siding with HERO opponents; it rightly confirmed the mayor’s discretion to describe the voting item by using the words “equal rights ordinance” even though that isn’t the official title. S Ct could have given the opponents another victory, with no chance of being reversed or suffering any loss of political support (in fact, they passed on the chance to curry favor with activists on that side…)

  15. J says:

    Anyone know what “the court’s established law regarding previous ballot initiatives” might be? How could that trump the plain meaning of the City Charter that the Sup Ct saw no reason to look behind?

    Mayor Parker Releases Statement On Texas Supreme Court HERO Ruling
    August 19, 2015 — Despite the continued backdoor legal maneuvers and manipulation by a small group that is out of touch, I am confident that Houstonians will vote to keep the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance in November. We are a city that believes everyone deserves to be treated equally no matter his or her race, age, gender, physical limitations, sexual orientation or gender identity. Discrimination simply isn’t a Houston value.

    With all due respect to the Texas Supreme Court, it is clear that politics is driving the law in this case. We will rewrite the ballot language, but I strongly disagree with the decision and find it to be contrary to the court’s established law regarding previous ballot initiatives.

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