Adam Bink

An interview with Annise Parker for Houston Mayor

Filed By Adam Bink | December 08, 2009 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: Annise Parker, election campaigns, Houston, LGBT candidate, LGBT movement

Late last week I talked to Annise Parker, the out lesbian and Houston City Controller who is running for Mayor of Houston. Annise is in a run-off, and the election is this Saturday. If elected against her opponent- a lobbyist who just sought and accepted the endorsement of a prominent anti-LGBT activist- Houston would become the largest city in the country to elect an openly LGBT candidate as Mayor. Additionally, the Houston mayoralty is a strong-mayor system, where except in very rare circumstances, nothing in the city council goes to a vote without the Mayor's authorization, and the Mayor always votes and votes first. She can get a lot done.

I was particularly interested in Annise because of her perspective on being a prominent openly LGBT candidate and self-avowed activist in one of the reddest states in America, and her perspective on some of our recent losses on marriage equality, and strategy on where to go from here. After the flip I have a brief Q&A with her and some thoughts.

Adam: I have written a lot about how LGBT campaigns are run. In Maine in 1995, the person who ran a LGBT ballot campaign told me they won by hiding LGBT people. No On 8 in California attempted the same thing. No On 1 in Maine did the reverse and featured LGBT families prominently in many places. I know you've attended LGBT fundraisers for your campaign, but have you been out on the campaign trail? Do you think it's important for candidates to be openly LGBT, or sacrifice that in order to win?

Annise: When I campaigned 12 years ago for my seat, in every printed piece of literature, I put that I was past President of the Houston Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. Two reasons. One, it's part of my political resume and I did not want to have the issue arise on the campaign trail, and my opponents be able to say, you're hiding the fact you're a lesbian. I said no, it's on my resume. The other reason I put it in there is that my community deserves it. We have a responsibility to live as openly as we can and to bring our full selves to everything we do, and begin to change hearts and minds. Clearly on marriage equality it has not mattered significantly whether we lead with straight allies or whether we lead with representative members of our own community. I personally believe the most important thing is each of us comes out and lives wholly and completely and honestly. The long view is that will make the difference. I will also tell you that in my first campaign years ago, I lost a citywide race. I finished 3rd out of 19 candidates. Every time I saw my name in print, it was "Annise Parker, lesbian activist or gay activist running for whatever". The world has changed significantly in that amount of time- there are now a multitude of GLBT images, there are more and more people who know someone in their family who is gay- that has changed the entire landscape- in that campaign 12 years ago, I was told by members of the GLBT community, well, if you have open transgender people as campaign volunteers or if you have identifiable openly gay people out pushing cards for you or representing you at public events, you'll never get elected. My response was, "well, then what would be the point?" and I immediately went out and my volunteer coordinator was transgender, my office manager was a flamboyantly gay man. We have to bring our whole selves to everything we do.

Adam: I'm interested to know what you think of the recent losses on marriage equality in California, Maine, and yesterday in New York State. There's a lot of discouragement and debate about where to go from here.

Annise: It's frustrating. I've been an out, gay activist since the 70s. I helped found the gay student organization at my university. I was, for a decade in the 80s, arguably the most visible lesbian activist in Houston for a very long time. Texas lost marriage a few years ago. I really take the long view. We lose battles, but we're winning the hearts and minds of this war. And we just have to keep chipping away, coming out, being visible, integrating our concerns into the issues of our society at all levels, and we're going to get there.

Adam: There has been a lot of discussion about shifting strategy and resources from marriage equality to domestic partnership benefits. While I know Houston is "a blue island in a sea of red", I'm curious what you think of that coming from a more conservative state.

Annise: Because I have been doing this kind of work for more than 30 years, and I do tend to take the longview, but I've also been in a lot of negotiations, and you don't start a negotiation from your bottom line. You start from where you'd like to be, and you settle for your bottom line. Full marriage equality is where we want to be. But we have to be pragmatic as we move forward, and I would remind folks, when I started in public office, we were only talking about domestic partner benefits. When we shifted to marriage, domestic partnership started popping up lots of places, and people would say, "please leave marriage alone! You can have domestic partnership benefits!" Marriage is a cultural institution that provokes a visceral reaction. Domestic partnership benefits is something you can have a discussion with folks on its merits. Soon as you talk about marriage, you tap into collective, subconscious issues for a lot of us. You don't abandon marriage, but you take the pragmatic course when there's an opportunity to advance.

Adam: I know you've worked on an LGBT anti-discrimination initiative when you were on the City Council. What kind of efforts would you undertake as Mayor- both in Houston and perhaps on the national scale- for LGBT people?

Annise: My first priority will be to be Mayor of Houston. As much as I care personally about marriage, domestic partnership benefits, LGBT adoption, I'm only going to weigh in on them as they impact the city of Houston, or as I can personally help fundraise or raise interest or awareness. But you're not going to see Houston weigh in officially. In Texas, there's a statewide referendum [on marriage] we lost. In Houston, there's a local referendum prohibiting Houston from offering domestic partnership benefits, it's now in our charter, so we'd have to have a citywide referendum battle. None of these issues are issues I can legislate as Mayor. They have to be decided by voters, and I have been very clear on the campaign the distinction between what I personally believe, and what I think the city should do. I cannot predict whether my community can come forward with their own effort to overturn, but at some point that will happen, and I will support it and do what I need to do on behalf of the city to put it on the ballot.

Adam: Do you have any message for the progressive blogosphere?

Annise: I think people misunderstand Texas, and I think people misunderstand Houston as well. Houston is an amazing, international city. We are ethnically and racially the most diverse city in the United States, closely paired to New York City. If you look at what drives the economy, we are the world's largest medical center, largest port in the United States, huge high-tech NASA and aerospace presence, all four sectors are tied into the world. If you go anywhere in the world and say Houston, people have an image of a modern, progressive, bustling city. If you go to the east or west coast, somehow the image is very different. The fact that I am the front-running candidate for Mayor of Houston, and view myself as an activist, Houston is a place where you look at what you can do and bring to the table more than who you are. I've been successful with a direct style of speaking to the voters of dealing with issues. Houston would surprise people. We are not a redneck wasteland. We are a modern progressive city with a very independent streak. I love my hometown and I absolutely believe in the people of Houston and their willingness to embrace change and tackle problems together.

I think Annise is 100% right on the importance of being out on the campaign trail. I wrote a little bit previously about how the strategies regarding featuring LGBT families in California and in Maine were different, but both efforts got at least 47% of the vote. There hasn't been a significant difference shown, but the Maine approach moves the ball forward more. I met people who were moved from a position of "no special rights for homosexuals" to being supportive of domestic partnerships. As Annise says, we just have to keep chipping away.

Electing Annise is one step towards that. It would do a lot of good for our movement to elect an openly LGBT candidate who brings a lot to the table- especially in a place like Texas. And while Annise is a good candidate on many issues (we also talked about her support for a health care public option, for example), it is heartening that she self-identifies as a progressive LGBT activist, not hiding the fact that she wants to advance the ball down the field for our community where she can. I think Annise is someone who won't forget her roots in the Houston Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus and a part of our community.

The election is on Saturday. I don't know about you, but having experienced recent losses in Maine, New York and a setback on ENDA, I sure would like to win one for a change. And a number of Texas friends have said to expect 11th-hour attacks to come down the pipe- especially with anti-LGBT forces mobilizing. You can contribute here. If you are in the area or know folks who are, they also need help getting out the vote. You can also join the campaign on Facebook to stay up to date in the final stretch.

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Gregory Hinton Gregory Hinton | December 8, 2009 1:18 PM

Adam. Congrats on a great get.

Annise Parker brings to her campaign the wisdom and patience of a veteran LGBT activist. As a frequent visitor to Houston, I know first hand that they have a warm and cohesive LGBT community. They never met a stranger.

This interview reminds me that even with the disappointments of 2008-2009, our community will be okay. We have to keep slogging, one step at a time, and get more creative with our activism.

Visibility, by all means, is essential. To be out is to always know who your friends are.

Good Luck, Annise!

Pokey Anderson | December 8, 2009 11:01 PM

Good interview!

I've known Annise for over twenty years. We ran a lesbian/feminist/gay/progressive bookstore together for nine.

She'll be a fine mayor. But, first, you all have to remind your friends & neighbors to actually VOTE!

One point that eludes almost everyone, because the national media obsessed on Maine:

Washington, a state with FIVE TIMES as many people as Maine, voted FOR domestic partnerships, over 53% FOR. Nearly 1 million Washington voters cast their ballots in favor. And yet, it's as if it didn't happen.

I'm still annoyed at the national media for leading everyone to believe that gay issues just went down in smoke because of little ole Maine.

Sure, Maine has 28,000 more moose than Washington State. But, last time I checked, moose don't vote.

Among other good news, passed along by SmartBrief:

Detroit picks gay man to lead City Council: Out black candidate Charles Pugh won his race for Detroit City Council. Pugh will serve as president of the body. (Livonia, Mich.) (11/5)

Florida city chooses first out council member: Social worker Steve Kornell, who won a seat on the St. Petersburg, Fla., City Council, is the first out candidate to win office there. St. Petersburg Times (Fla.) (11/4)

Salt Lake elects first out member of City Council: Stan Penfold, director of the Utah AIDS Foundation, has become the first openly gay member of the Salt Lake City Council. The Salt Lake Tribune (Utah)/LGBT FYI blog (11/3)