Fourteen months after first approving the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, city council members voted 12-5 Wednesday to affirm HERO and then to put it before voters on the November ballot.
The vote to reinstate HERO, which was widely expected, came in response to the Texas Supreme Court’s July decision ordering the council to either repeal the ordinance or put it up for a public vote.
Council members Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, Dwight Boykins, Richard Nguyen, Ed Gonzalez, Robert Gallegos, Mike Laster, Larry Green, Stephen Costello, David Robinson, C.O. “Brad” Bradford and Jack Christie, voted in favor of reinstating HERO. Council members Dave Martin, Oliver Pennington, Michael Kubosh, Jack Christie and Brenda Stardig voted to repeal it.
“All we're saying by this is that everyone should have an equal opportunity to equal rights," said Cohen, a staunch supporter of HERO.
The council also voted 13-4 Wednesday to use the city attorney’s proposed language for the ballot measure, which states:
”Shall the City of Houston repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, Ord. No. 2014-530, which prohibits discrimination in city employment and city services, city contracts, public accommodations, private employment, and housing based on an individual's sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, or pregnancy?"
The approved language means a “yes” vote will be in favor of repealing HERO, while a “no” vote will be to keep the ordinance. Andy Taylor, an attorney for opponents of the ordinance, told the council Tuesday that the language should be reversed so that voters would choose to affirm the ordinance instead of vote to repeal it. Bradford proposed substitute wording Wednesday, but his motion was defeated 12-5.
“Today what happened is that council members reaffirmed the original Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, and we put it to the voters in the clearest, most straightforward language we could, based on the fact that there was a petition, and that is, ‘Do you want to repeal the ordinance or not?'” Mayor Annise Parker said during a press conference following Wednesday’s meeting. “I and many others will go out and advocate to not repeal the ordinance.”
After the City Council voted 11-6 to approve HERO in May 2014, a coalition of anti-LGBT activists and pastors launched a petition drive to repeal the ordinance. The city rejected the petition last August, saying it didn’t have enough valid signatures. The anti-LGBT coalition sued, but the city's decision was upheld by both a jury and a state district judge, who determined the petition contained rampant forgery.
However, the Texas Supreme Court ruled July 25 that the City Council had a ministerial duty to accept the petition — regardless of how many signatures were forged — because City Secretary Anna Russell initially certified it.
HERO vote could impact mayor's race
Wednesday’s vote to place HERO on the ballot means the ordinance is likely to have a major impact on mayoral and city council races Nov. 3.
Five mayoral candidates — Costello, former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell, former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, state Rep. Sylvester Turner and Marty McVey — have come out in support of HERO. Two, Ben Hall and Bill King, oppose the ordinance. The Houston GLBT Political Caucus will vote Saturday on which candidates to endorse for mayor and 16 council seats.
On Wednesday, About magazine published a column by Turner in which he explained why he supports the ordinance:
I support HERO because it will provide a local remedy the next time a state district court judge or players from our Dynamo professional soccer team are turned away from a nightclub because of the color of their skin; the next time a Houstonian wearing a turban is refused admittance to a business otherwise open to the public; and the next time a case manager for homeless gay or transgender youth is unable to place them into an apartment or shelter because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Yes, these things have actually happened in Houston – but they don’t have to. Other Texas cities, including Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio, have passed similar nondiscrimination laws that are working to make their cities stronger without generating any negative incidents.
During a City Council meeting on Tuesday, Bell (second photo) spoke out in favor of HERO.
After the City Council vote, the Greater Houston Partnership – the city's largest business group – issued a statement supporting HERO.
"As we said before, when the ordinance was first discussed, Houston is a remarkably welcoming place," Bob Harvey, the group's president and CEO, says in the press release. "As we work to attract businesses and talented professionals to our region, they have made clear that they are seeking a community that is welcoming, diverse and inclusive. Ensuring such an environment is critically important to the continued success of the region's economy."
A coalition of LGBT and progressive groups – HRC, American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, Equality Texas, Texas Freedom Network and Freedom for All Americans – also reiterated their support for HERO.
“The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance reflects the core Houstonian values – that no one should face discrimination because of their age or race, their status as a military veteran, or their sexual orientation or gender identity,” the organizations said in a joint statement. “The City Council voted on this ordinance last year, and it enjoyed enormous support from elected officials, businesses big and small, civil rights groups, and a diversity of faith leaders. Over the coming months, we intend to send a clear message that voters in Houston will reject any and all attempts to strip these needed protections away from their friends and family members.”
Houston is the fourth largest city in the country, but it suffers from incredibly low voter turnout, especially during non-presidential election cycles. A few thousand votes will likely decide whether HERO lives or dies. Given the amount of attention that Beyoncé's support for the LGBT community has gotten in the past, it's not hard to imagine the kind of positive impact her support for HERO might have on a local election.
Parker won't be 'poster child' of HERO campaign
During her press conference on Wednesday, Parker rejected the notion that HERO is her most significant achievement during her six years as mayor.
“I think it’s an important thing, and I think it’s the right thing, and I’m a little frustrated to have to spend so much time this fall working on it,” she said. “But what I’ve done for homelessness affects a whole lot more lives, what I’ve done in terms of infrastructure … [is] vastly more important.”
But Parker added that she doesn’t understand how anyone could not be moved by the stories of people who’ve repeatedly filled council chambers to speak in favor of the ordinance.
“Particularly for the transgender community, these are people who, in order to be comfortable in their own skin, often give up their families, their jobs, their income, and accept a life of poverty just to be right with themselves, and how someone can not be moved, and not feel emotional about that, I do not understand. The stories are heartbreaking.”
Parker also said she doesn’t intend to be the public face or the spokesperson for the campaign to preserve HERO.
“As I said, I think it’s an important ordinance,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do. It’s good government. It’s about the image of Houston. It’s not the most important thing I have done or will do, and I still have a lot of things I want to accomplish before I get to the end of my time. I will be active, I’ll be engaged. I’ll work to raise money for the campaign against repeal, but I’m not going to be the poster child. The other side is doing their best to make me the poster child. They want to make it all about Mayor Parker.”
Parker said if HERO is repealed, there’s “a clear potential” the city will lose business, as has been seen in states like Indiana and Arizona after their legislatures passed anti-gay laws. She said this is particularly true since HERO prohibits discrimination not only against LGBT people, but also based on numerous other characteristics, including as race, sex and disability.
“I think if we were to undo something like that, all of those different groups would have to weigh in and say, ‘We can’t bring our conference or convention down there,'” she said. “One of the reasons we’re growing so fast is that we are considered this warm, welcoming, international, very cosmopolitan city, and we don’t want to look like we’re taking a big step backwards.”
Parker reiterated previous statements that she’s confident voters will uphold the ordinance. But she said the campaign to preserve HERO will need to raise $1 to $3 million.
“You never take a campaign lightly, and there’s no telling what kind of incident could happen to derail things,” she said. “The fact that all of the top-tier mayoral campaigns are supporting HERO, the fact that there’s a well-organized, well-funded support committee behind HERO, the fact that the Greater Houston Partnership supports HERO, all of those things say it’s going to move in the right direction.”
Parker said the last time a gay issue was on the ballot, voters banned domestic partner benefits by a margin of just 2 percentage points, 51 to 49, in 2001.
“The world has changed tremendously since the early 2000s,” she said. “We’re not going to take it for granted, but I don’t have any concerns that it’s not going to go the way I want, which would be to affirm HERO.”
On Monday, HERO opponents – led by Taylor – sued Parker, alleging she violated their civil rights and religious liberty by rejecting the petition — and by later subpoenaing the sermons of pastors involved in the effort to repeal the ordinance. Parker responded in a statement calling the lawsuit a political stunt.
Also pending is a petition to enshrine a transgender bathroom ban in the City Charter. After the city rejected the anti-trans petition, activist Dave Wilson sued, and a judge ordered Russell to count the signatures and report the results to the council by Friday. However, the city has said it will appeal that decision.
On Sunday, the Montrose Center will host a HERO Volunteer Recruitment Drive at 2 p.m..
[bottom photo courtesy Mark Eggleston]