Anti-gay rhetoric rises in race for Houston mayor

AP News
Posted: Dec 09, 2009 3:58 PM

Annise Parker's mayoral campaign Web site bio reads like a catalog of campaign catchphrases: She has been Houston's city controller and a member of City Council. She's for job creation, against irresponsible spending and tough on crime.

Until the last line: "Annise Parker and her life partner, Kathy Hubbard, have been together since 1990. They have two children."

Parker, 53, has never made a secret or an issue of being a lesbian. Not during her bid to be Houston's next mayor nor in previous campaigns.

But others have. If Parker wins the Dec. 12 runoff election, Houston would become what's believed to be the largest U.S. city ever to have an openly gay mayor _ and that has catapulted Parker's sexual orientation into the center of the race.

Anti-gay activists and conservative religious groups have endorsed her opponent, former city attorney Gene Locke, and sent out mailers condemning Parker's "homosexual behavior."

Meanwhile, gay and lesbian political organizations nationwide have endorsed Parker, raised money for her and plan to run phone banks rallying her supporters.

The controversy has put Locke in a precarious political position. With the election expected to be tight, the 61-year-old has been trying to distance himself from anti-gay attacks while courting conservative voters who could tip the race in his favor. If Locke wins, he would be Houston's second black mayor.

Two of Locke's key supporters contributed money to a conservative political action committee that sent out an anti-gay mailer earlier this month urging voters not to pick Parker because she was endorsed by the "gay and lesbian political caucus." Campaign finance reports show Ned Holmes, finance chairman of Locke's campaign, and James Dannenbaum, a member of the campaign's finance committee, each gave $20,000.

"Gene is disappointed and wishes that Ned Holmes had not made that contribution. Gene has been very clear with his supporters to not participate in divisive campaigning," Kim Devlin, a senior Locke adviser said in a statement Tuesday. "Gene Locke has fought against bigotry his entire life and knows that there is no place for it in this campaign and this city."

Parker's campaign said she did not want to be interviewed by The Associated Press on the issue.

The dynamics of the mayoral runoff echo California's Proposition 8 vote in 2008, where black voters formed an unusual alliance with conservatives to approve a measure that banned same-sex marriage, said Richard Murray, a University of Houston political scientist.

"You don't have many cases where you have an older straight, black male supported by conservatives matched up against a younger white female who happens to be gay, and is backed by non-establishment sources," Murray said. "Normally, you see progressive whites allied with African-Americans. This is exposing the same fault line we saw nationally in Prop 8."

Parker and Locke, both Democrats in the nonpartisan race, made it to the runoff after garnering more votes than two other candidates on Nov. 3. They are vying to replace Bill White, who is term-limited after serving six years and is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.

There are several other openly gay mayors, including in Portland, Ore., Providence, R.I. and Cambridge, Mass. But Houston, which is largely Democratic, is the nation's fourth largest city. It has about 60,000 residents who identify as gay or lesbian.

Though Parker's sexual orientation initially was not an issue in the campaign, that's changed.

Dave Wilson, a longtime anti-gay activist who once led a successful campaign to prohibit benefits for the domestic partners of city employees, sent out 34,000 mailers opposing Parker.

The flyer shows a picture of Parker being sworn in as controller with her partner by her side. The headline asks: "Is this the image Houston wants to portray?"

Another vocal anti-gay activist, Steven Hotze, has endorsed Locke, saying Parker's "lifestyle choices" was one of several reasons, his spokesman Allen Blakemore said. Hotze, whose group received the contributions from Holmes and Dannenbaum, sent out a mailer against Parker and candidates in other municipal races because they were supported by a gay and lesbian political action committee, Blakemore said.

The Houston Area Pastor Council also discouraged voters from choosing Parker, saying she is an "open advocate of a gay agenda." The pastors worry Parker will try to re-establish domestic partner benefits for city workers, even though she has said she has no plans to.

Locke has condemned the divisive rhetoric, but accepted the endorsements from anti-gay activists. Locke has said he would "accept endorsements from those people who believe I am the best candidate."

Parker, who has not responded directly to the attacks, keeps her campaign focused on her record.

"I know there are folks ascribing a lot of different things to this campaign," she said in November. "The simple fact is: I am the most qualified candidate in this race and I intend to be the next mayor of Houston and I'm in the best position to lead our city."

Parker began her political career as a gay activist. She campaigned against the passage of a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in 2005, and has said she supports gay marriage and continuing a city ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Through the years, she gained the support of a broad constituency but never lost touch with the gay community, said Ray Hill, a Houston gay activist who founded the GLBT Political Caucus and helped Parker get her start in community activism.

"She belongs to the whole city, not just us. But we have accomplished something when one of us has reached this point," said Hill, who is already planning a party on Pacific Street, in the heart of Houston's gay neighborhood. "When she's celebrating her victory at her campaign headquarters, we'll be celebrating here."