Gay mayor-elect: Victory shows Houston's diversity

AP News
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Posted: Dec 13, 2009 5:11 PM

The day after Houston voters chose Annise Parker to become the city's first openly gay mayor, she did as she had throughout a contentious, hard-fought campaign: focused on the brick-and-mortar realities of running the country's fourth largest city.

Parker told a Sunday press conference about her transition team, her plans to change the running of the Houston Police Department and the financial constraints faced by the city.

Then, she paused to reflect on the significance of the election, which made Houston the largest U.S. city to elect an openly gay mayor.

"It's a historic election for my community, and I believe an election that will change some people's minds about the city of Houston," said Parker, 53. "It's a diverse, international city that welcomes everyone."

Parker, who began her political career as a gay activist, rose through the ranks of local politics to serve first on city council, then as city controller.

"I realize that I'm a role model, but I've been a role model for my community for 30 years," she said. "It's part of who I am, and I believe it makes me a better representative for the city of Houston."

Parker defeated former city attorney Gene Locke, 61, with 53.6 percent of the vote Saturday in a race that had a turnout of only 16.5 percent. Locke had hoped to become the city's second black mayor.

A little more than 152,000 residents turned out to cast ballots in the city, which has a population of 2.2 million. Of those voters, 81,743 chose Parker _ some 11,000 more than voted for Locke. About 60,000 residents identify themselves as gay or lesbian.

A call to Locke's campaign was not immediately returned.

Parker's victory comes after several setbacks for gay rights activists. New York lawmakers earlier this month rejected a bill that would have made their state the sixth to allow marriage between same-sex couples. In November, Maine voters repealed the Legislature's passage of a state law allowing same-sex marriage there.

Several smaller U.S. cities, including Portland, Ore., Providence, R.I., and Cambridge, Mass., have openly gay mayors.

Parker has not made a secret or an issue of her sexual orientation during this campaign or any of her previous runs for city office. Nevertheless, it became the focus of the election race after anti-gay activists and conservative religious groups endorsed Locke and sent out mailers condemning Parker's "homosexual behavior."

The race was also closely watched by gay and lesbian rights organizations around the country, which endorsed Parker, contributed money to her campaign and staged get-out-the-vote phone banks.

"We think Annise Parker will be a fantastic mayor for Houston, and the increased visibility that comes with that would help our community," said Jenna Lowenstein, communications director for the Stonewall Democrats, a national gay and lesbian political organization.

On Sunday, a glowing Parker dismissed the attacks by the anti-gay activists, saying they have been waging "the same ugly divisive campaigns attacking my community for a long time."

"I'm proud that the city of Houston has grown and matured, even though they have not," said Parker, who said she celebrated her victory with a bubble bath.

Parker's term starts Jan. 1.