In November, Houston voters headed to the polls to decide whether the fourth-largest city in the country would join hundreds of others in adopting a non-discrimination ordinance.
Then-Mayor Annise Parker knew the ordinance wouldn’t pass without a fight, but after a decision from the state Supreme Court, the matter ended up on the ballot sooner than expected. Still, she hoped Houston’s equal rights ordinance, with employment and housing protections based on 15 different categories, would have broad enough appeal to pass.
Instead, it was defeated by a margin of two to one.
“There’s a reason why so many cities have these local non-discrimination ordinances,” Parker said in an interview, “and that is because they make sense and people support them. So what happened with the voters in Houston?”
It’s a question she and others asked after the defeat, and it’s one whose answer will prove instructive should proponents of the measure try again.
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Polling a month before the vote showed likely voters slightly favoring the ordinance but with a large percentage – roughly 18 percent – unsure. After the vote, it became clear that the ordinance did particularly poorly among black voters, struggling in majority black council districts, even with the president and executive director of the local NAACP chapter speaking out in favor of HERO. Parker also said older voters tended to oppose the ordinance, despite an AARP endorsement.
But according to results from the Kinder Institute’s 2016 Houston Area Survey, 73 percent of Houston residents say it’s “very important” for the city to pass a local equal rights ordinance. Another 16 percent said it was “somewhat important.” The survey was conducted in spring 2016, just months after the ordinance failed.
So what, exactly went wrong for the ordinance’s supporters? Translating that support to votes proved to be quite a hurdle.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who was voted into office by many of the same voters who rejected HERO, does not believe the HERO vote is an accurate reflection of Houston, according to a statement from his communications director, Janice Evans. Still, she said, he has no immediate plans to reintroduce it, citing pressing city finance needs as his top priority.
Even though Parker is taking a break from Houston politics as she leads a study group at Harvard University, the HERO vote is still a lingering frustration.
She said the city has practical needs for a non-discrimination ordinance: it allows residents to address discrimination claims, and the law can impact whether a business or event will consider coming to the city. There’s symbolic importance too, she said.
Proponents of the ordinance began asking Parker if she’d support their cause even before she got elected. “And I said, ‘Yes, when the time is right,’” said Parker. After she was elected for her final term in office, she decided, the time was right.
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Unlike many other cities, which added protections for gay and transgender individuals to existing equal rights ordinances, Houston had the opportunity to write the law from scratch, something Parker thought would prove an advantage when she introduced the bill in April 2014. Instead, the wording quickly drew criticism.
What ultimately passed in city council in May with a vote of 11 to 6 was a modified version of that ordinance that dropped a section specifying that transgender individuals could use the restroom that aligned most closely with their gender identities.
Still, the city council vote was a victory for Parker and supporters who cheered the decision.
But the fight was far from over. A group of pastors began a petition to put the law on the ballot. After some back and forth from the city, the petition was rejected in August because, according to the city attorney, some 2,000 names had not been properly gathered.
A day later, the pastors sued the city. In preparation for that lawsuit, an attorney with the city subpoenaed the sermons of pastors suspected to be talking politics from the pulpit, a violation of churches’ tax-exempt status. But when the broad scope of the subpoenas generated more controversy – Senator Ted Cruz called it a “grotesque abuse of power” – Parker ultimately withdrew them in October.
By the time the state Supreme Court ruled in late July of the following year that the ordinance would either have to be repealed by the city council or put on the November ballot, the ordinance had generated a lot of heat.
Some of it, Parker said, was personal. “We are home to some of the largest mega-churches in America,” she said, adding that as the first openly gay mayor of Houston she’s faced opposition from “a really virulent group of homophobes” throughout her tenure. “They’ve been stirring that pot for a long time,” she said. The equal rights ordinance was confirmation of their worst fears. “They were like, ‘Here’s proof. We told you she had this secret gay agenda.’”
But it also intersected with a national conversation.
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Before Houston’s city council voted on the ordinance, FOX news host Mike Huckabee called on his fans to “show your support for your own Biblical beliefs” and protest the legislation. Then, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared that gay marriage was protected as a constitutional right in June 2015, Parker said Houston’s equal rights ordinance suddenly became the focus of a nation of evangelicals fired up by the ruling.
Even still, she thought it would pass in November – even if it would be an uphill battle. “We were caught off guard,” said Parker of the state Supreme Court’s ruling. “But that’s no excuse for losing it.”
The ordinance had support from the NAACP, AARP, the local League of United Latin American Citizens and other groups. Supporters envisioned the bill as a way for a whole range of people to have access to local recourse if they were discriminated against. They knew it would be a tough sell to older voters.
“We thought it wouldn’t be about [just] the gay or transgender community,” said Parker. “We thought we would be able to have a civil conversation about all these other protections and that people would vote in their best interest.”
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By the time Richard Carlbom of Minnesota-based political consultants United Strategies came to help a coalition of organizations with the HERO campaign, the election was just 10 weeks away. The strategist had worked on marriage equality issues in other states, including in the South. He knew the ordinance faced opposition but he also felt voters could be educated on its benefits.
“When people heard about the idea of the ordinance, they loved it,” he said in an interview with the Urban Edge.
But he and his fellow HERO supporters underestimated the appeal of the counter-narrative, which played on fears about men accessing women’s bathrooms, despite the fact that the language about restroom access had been dropped from the ordinance. A television ad from opponents laid out the rhetorical stakes when it showed a faceless man open the door of a bathroom stall a young girl had just entered, ominous music playing in the background as words flashed across the screen about “registered sex offenders” having access to women’s bathrooms. “When you looked at the impact of the opposition’s message,” Carlbom said, “it was pretty devastating.”
But opponents of the ordinance said they were just warning people of a real possibility. “All we did is identify a very scary reality, it wasn’t a scare tactic,” Jared Woodfill, the anti-HERO campaign spokesman told the Houston Chronicle. “If anything is scary about this ordinance, it’s the truth,” said Woodfill, a lead organizer of the campaign against HERO. Woodfill did not respond to emails and calls for this article.
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The opposition’s strategy worked. According to a poll of likely voters developed by Rice University professor Bob Stein for the University of Houston Hobby Center for Public Policy’s Survey Research Center, members of the most undecided group, African-American women, were likely to oppose the ordinance “when treated with messaging that mentioned the ordinance would allow ‘men who dress and identify as women to use a woman’s restrooms.’”
But the poll, conducted about a month before the vote, also found that those same black women would move towards support for the ordinance when told that repealing it could have consequences, such as moving the 2017 Super Bowl out of Houston. “Question wording here makes all the difference because of the context of the campaign,” Stein said.
The Kinder Institute’s own survey, conducted in the spring of 2016 after the ordinance was defeated, shows strong support for an equal rights ordinance among black survey respondents living in Houston. Sixty-six percent of them said passing a local equal rights ordinance was “very important.” Another 22 percent said it was “somewhat important.”
White respondents were less likely to think it was important, with only 65 percent saying it was “very important” and 10 percent saying it was “somewhat important.”
About 82 percent of Hispanic respondents felt a local ordinance was “very important.”
"The vote itself was about a bathroom ordinance,” said Klineberg, “not an equal rights or anti-discrimination ordinance, and it’s a reminder of how much it matters how these propositions get framed in the political process.” So even though the language protecting access to restrooms was dropped and legal experts agreed that no one who committed a crime in a bathroom would be able to use HERO as protection, opponents were still able to touch on people's fears.
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Does that mean another effort, with new messaging, might prove more successful for the ordinance? Perhaps.
“I don’t think that vote is reflective of the open, welcome, tolerant nature of the city of Houston,” said Parker.
She said Turner, her successor, would have to work the politics of the issue should he decide to reintroduce the ordinance. “What I hope he doesn’t do,” she said, “is decide we need a non-discrimination ordinance that doesn’t include the transgender community. Why would you pass an ordinance that leaves out a group that is currently targeted for discrimination more than any other?”