Voters easily repealed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance on Tuesday, flushing HERO with a fear mongering anti-LGBT campaign that won out despite being outspent by ordinance supporters more than 3-to-1.
Early voting results released as the polls closed at 7 p.m. – showing HERO tanking 62.82% to 37.18% – signaled a tough night to come for the backers of the non-discrimination ordinance. HERO failed 60.97% to 39.03%, a remarkable shift in public opinion that just a few weeks ago showed the ordinance passing by a slight margin.
More than 257,000 ballots were cast in the HERO campaign, with 156,882 votes against it versus 100,427 for it.
Mayor Annise Parker, who championed the measure, donated money to the campaign to save it and faced bitter, personal attacks from its opponents, expressed her disappointment and flashed anger during a concession speech delivered to HERO supporters during an election watch party at Jackson Street BBQ.
"I've been an activist for more than 40 years. I have stood here in Houston four times when people were given the opportunity to vote on my rights. No one's rights should be subject to a popular vote," Parker said. (Watch below)
Supporters poured nearly $3 million into a campaign to defend HERO, far outpacing the finances of a small group of anti-gay opponents who traded in misleading, transphobic TV ad campaign funded by about $1 million in donations. HERO's defense included a massive mobilization from the Human Rights Campaign that cost more than $600,000, created a special fundraising PAC and put 34 staffers on the ground in Houston. Chad Griffin, HRC's president, spent the week before the vote in the city and called HRC's effort its largest ever for a campaign.
If Houston upholds HERO, it will be because the unprecedented investments of cash and staff to defend it. The Human Rights Campaign has shipped 34 full-time employees from its Washington, D.C., headquarters to Houston (“I don’t think we have ever had a local or state battle where we have had 34 staffers on the ground,” said president Chad Griffin). The ACLU of Texas sacrificed its entire office to become the campaign’s headquarters, even tearing down a wall to expand for an influx of campaign workers (“It was like rabbits multiplying,” laughed Terri Burke, the group’s executive director).
Griffin’s group filed its own local political action committee in Houston, which raises money from donors and hands over the proceeds to Houston Unites. “We’ll have over $600,000 into this campaign, maybe $650,000,” Griffin said. That cash also accounts for the nearly three dozen HRC staff shipped into Houston, and contributes to a total budget that had surpassed $3 million on Wednesday and was on its way to $4 million by Election Day.
But the campaign misfired, according to political pundits, who said HERO supporters failed to strongly combat the messaging of opponents who boiled the HERO vote down to a referendum on "the bathroom ordinance" and tapped into the fear of voters uninformed about the ordinance with its "No men in women's restrooms" message.
The focus makes sense, given polling data. Robert Stein, a political science professor at Rice University who oversaw a poll by his college and the University of Houston that was released Oct. 11, told BuzzFeed News that he tested messages to gauge persuasiveness. He found that raising the bathroom issue was the most effective means to cool support for the law. It swung nearly 7% of voters to oppose the measure.
And Houston Unites, which ran the campaign to support HERO, didn't hit back against opponents on "the bathroom ordinance." Via the Houston Chronicle:
But supporters failed to get out ahead of the bathroom issue, said University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus.
"The pro-HERO folks didn't realize early enough where the problems would be and didn't do enough to negate the arguments that were likely to come," he said. "Only late in the game did we see significant public support from notables from the Democratic party or from Hollywood. It was all in the fourth quarter, when the game was already won by halftime by the anti-folks."
The campaign also didn't stress the possible economic consequences of rejecting HERO, including losing a boycott and losing the NCAA Final Four in 2016 and the Super Bowl in 2017.
Stein’s research found that more African-Americans voters, especially women, were undecided about the law and more likely to oppose it when told it would allow men in women’s restrooms. But when they heard messages that repealing HERO could bring negative economic consequences, the same black women shifted to supporting the ordinance.
In particular, telling voters that repealing HERO could spur boycotts of hotels and the convention center, or that the Super Bowl and NCAA could withdraw games from the city, was nearly twice as effective as the bathroom argument.
But Stein said he has seen little of those messages from the campaign. Indeed, Houston Unites commercials have overwhelmingly focused on how the law promotes diversity and has focused little on economic arguments. But other matters, like talking about the law’s broad scope, tested so poorly at swaying movable voters in sample groups that he concluded they “didn’t work. You were preaching to the choir.”
Parker said HERO opponents – including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick – lied to voters about HERO, which offered protections against discrimination to 15 groups, including LGBT people, veterans and pregnant women.
"This was a campaign of fear mongering and deliberate lies. This isn't misinformation, this is a calculated campaign of lies designed to demonize a little understood minority and to use that to take down an ordinance that 200 other cities across America and 17 states have successfully passed and operated under," Parker said.
"They just kept spewing an ugly wad of lies from our TV screens and from pulpits. This was a calculated campaign by a very small but determined group of right-wing ideologues and the religionist right and they know only how to destroy, not how to build up," Parker added.
Patrick, who came to Houston last month to forcefully oppose HERO and take shots at Parker, appeared to be the first elected official to take a victory lap on Tuesday. In a statement issued shortly before 9 p.m., Patrick thanked Houston voters for rejecting the ordinance – and continued his misleading argument that "equality is already the law."
“I want to thank the voters in the City of Houston for turning out in record numbers to defeat Houston Prop 1 – the bathroom ordinance. The voters clearly understand that this proposition was never about equality – that is already the law. It was about allowing men to enter women’s restrooms and locker rooms – defying common sense and common decency," Patrick said.
He also offered another dig at Parker.
“I got involved and took a leadership role in fighting this misguided ballot proposition because we have to stand up to this kind of pandering to political correctness. It’s unfortunate that liberals like Annise Parker are so out of touch with the people of Houston that something like this shows up on the ballot," Patrick said.
Patrick continued his assault on HERO during an election night watch party for opponents of the measure.
"It is just common sense and common decency. We don't want men in women's ladies rooms. This has nothing to do with equal rights," Patrick said. (Watch below)
Attorney General Ken Paxton followed Patrick's statement on Tuesday evening with his own a few minutes later.
Prop 1 has been defeated by the citizens of Houston. Houston rightly ignored Hollywood & the liberal elite. Voters are the real heroes.— Ken Paxton (@KenPaxtonTX) November 4, 2015
Houston Unites and the coalition of groups backing HERO – including HRC, ACLU of Texas, Equality Texas, NAACP Houston Branch, Texas Freedom Network and Freedom for All Americans – released a statement expressing disappointment over HERO's repeal.
“We are disappointed with today’s outcome, but our work to secure nondiscrimination protections for all hard-working Houstonians will continue. No one should have to live with the specter of discrimination hanging over them. Everyone should have the freedom to work hard, earn a decent living and provide for themselves and their families.
"Although Houston won't yet join the 200 other cities that have similar nondiscrimination measures, the fight continues. We will continue telling the stories of Houstonians whose lives would be better off because of HERO – including people of color, people of faith, veterans who have served our country, women, and gay and transgender people.
“We’ve learned some important lessons, as well. We have to continue sharing our stories so that more Houstonians know what HERO is really about and aren't susceptible to the ugliest of smear campaigns run by the opposition. And we must remember that all of us are stronger when we stand together, speaking up with one voice for protections like those in HERO, rather than allowing those who oppose fairness and equality to divide us.”
Parker told the Houston Chronicle she won't seek to pass another HERO in the remaining two months of her mayoral term. On Tuesday night, the mayor said that even in the ordinance's defeat, supporters notched a few victories.
"It pulled us all together and it unified us. Unfortunately it just didn't pull enough of us into the voting booth and that was the problem. Poll after poll showed that when Houstonians got the facts, they supported HERO," Parker said.
[video via KPRC | h/t Towleroad]