Houston Equal Rights Fight Could Have Statewide Electoral Consequences

Note: This story originally appeared in The Quorum Report. Join us there daily for coverage of Texas government and politics. 


Former Harris County GOP Chairman Jared Woodfill (left) with Sen. Dan Patrick (Right). Photo via Big Jolly Politics.

Time is running short for opponents of Houston’s recently passed equal rights ordinance, which supporters call HERO, to gather signatures on a petition to try to overturn it. Opponents led by longtime – and now former because he was recently ousted – Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill are working to turn in at least 17,000 signatures of Houston residents by next Monday. If they can do that and the signatures are verified, the issue will be on track to cause all kinds of additional heat in Houston with potential statewide implications.

On the surface, this would seem to be a classic liberal versus conservative argument playing out at the local level. But one possible statewide consequence has do with Woodfill’s role in the fight coupled with speculation that he’d like to be the next Republican Party of Texas chairman. Meantime, the placement of what’s been framed as a gay-rights issue on the November ballot could be used by Democrats to push their voters to the polls in the state’s largest city during a non-presidential year.


Houston Mayor Annise Parker

The ordinance, as passed by the city council and signed by Mayor Annise Parker, is described by the Houston Chronicle’s Mike Morris, as a ban on “discrimination based not just on sexual orientation and gender identity but also, as federal laws do, sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, as well as family, marital or military status.”

Woodfill and others ominously call it a “sexual predator act.” As he and other opponents put it on this website: “It will by government decree open thousands of women’s restrooms, showers and girls locker rooms in the city to biological males! Predators and peepers can use it as cover to violate our women and children!”

Now working alongside Steve Hotze’s Conservative Republicans of Texas, Woodfill told Quorum Report on Monday that his group is confident they’ll have enough signatures in time to meet the deadline. “We can’t afford to wait. Lives are at risk,” Woodfill said. “It’s about the safety of our wives and daughters and kids.”

Woodfill declined to comment on growing speculation that he may be using the issue to position himself as the “conservative choice” for the next chairman of the Texas Republican Party. He stepped down as Harris County Chairman earlier this month after losing to challenger Paul Simpson. Voters in Houston could be forgiven, though, for not noticing Woodfill is no longer chairman given the amount of email blasts he is still sending out regularly about the ordinance. “This isn’t about anybody’s personality,” Woodfill said. “This is about the issue.”

For his part, Simpson said he supports the effort to overturn the ordinance and, he added, the county party leadership is in a state of transition. “I think repealing it is appropriate,” Simpson said.

City Councilwoman Ellen Cohen voted for the ordinance and said she cannot understand “why anyone would be in favor of discriminating.” When asked about Woodfill’s crusade against the ordinance, Cohen said she doesn’t think about him much at all but then quickly added “I don’t think he represents Republican thinking” on non-discrimination.

“Republicans I know are business people and strong supporters of non-discrimination who have family members who are gay or military members or have some disability and they all want easy and local access to a non-discrimination ordinance,” Cohen said. The Greater Houston Partnership endorsed the ordinance just as other business groups have done with similar laws in other cities.

Pointing to her years of assisting sexual assault victims as CEO of the Houston Area Women’s Center, Cohen said “scaring people about bathrooms is the wrong way to go.” She said that during testimony on the ordinance, the council did not hear about any cases of men dressed as women with the purpose of entering women’s restrooms to perpetrate a sexual assault. Any fear of that is “totally unfounded,” Cohen said.

If this goes on the ballot in November, which now seems likely, Cohen said she believes it will be affirmed.

Some of our astute readers have already asked why former Chairman Woodfill is still pushing this issue so hard after he finished his term. As alluded to earlier, Woodfill’s name has been floated over the past few months as a potential successor to State Republican Chairman Steve Munisteri.

Chairman Munisteri was unavailable for comment for this story, but he has previously said he will serve only a portion of his term. He has not said exactly when he might exit. Attorney General Greg Abbott, the party’s nominee for governor, has asked Munisteri to remain chairman at least through the 2015 legislative session. “Abbott asking him to stay was a big part of his decision,” said party spokesman Spencer Yeldell. Depending on the timing, it is possible the quite conservative State Republican Executive Committee could make the decision about his replacement.

Harris County’s top elected Republican, County Judge Ed Emmett, led the charge to get rid of Woodfill. “You can’t prevent somebody from campaigning on an issue even if they’re not chairman anymore,” Emmett said. “It’s not a lot different from Cathie Adams sending stuff out,” Emmett said, referring to the former chairman of the Texas GOP.

Emmett has been highly critical of Woodfill’s focus on divisive social issues rather than on expanding the Republican Party in the Houston area. That’s a big reason Emmett, along with heavyweights like former RPT Chairman George Strake and Dick Weekley, raised about $300,000 in their effort to replace Woodfill with new chairman Simpson.

As to whether Woodfill might be using the issue to angle for the job of state chairman, Judge Emmett said he would hope Attorney General Greg Abbott, if elected governor, would have a serious role in making the choice. “I think the governor should be given some leeway,” Emmett said. “I’d hate to see the state party become something divorced from the elected officials,” he said, pointing out that it has happened before.

While that tug-of-war plays out on the GOP side, Democrats may see an opening.

Some observers have said in a general election season when Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Ft Worth, needs to charge up her base in her bid for governor, this issue in Houston could give her specifically and Democrats broadly a boost. It is, of course, not likely that supporters of gay-rights would vote for Republicans if they do indeed show up at the polls this fall to make their voices heard about the ordinance.

“I think that’s right,” said University of Houston Political Scientist Brandon Rottinghaus. If Democrats are looking for ways to energize their base, the equal rights ordinance “would have to be on their list,” he said. Rottinghaus cautioned Democrats, however, that the issue is a double-edged sword. “They may want to use that as their tool to generate interest” but the problem is some reliably Democratic groups like many African-Americans and a significant percentage of Hispanics don’t have a traditional liberal view of gay rights, he said.

“There are opportunities for the Democrats to make this work and there’s also the potential there could be a serious backlash,” Rottinghaus said. Conservatives will also turn out with intensity to oppose the ordinance, he said.

Political Science Chair at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Jon Taylor, was more blunt in his assessment. He asked “Why give Democrats a reason to come out in November?” Taylor is a Republican and has long criticized Woodfill for his fiery brand of politics. “Do you really want to give extra ammunition to the opposition?” Taylor said. “Totally unnecessary. It is time to back off.”

Copyright June 23, 2014, Harvey Kronberg, www.quorumreport.com, All rights are reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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