In her annual State of the City address, Mayor Parker put a long-awaited item on the table.
Mayor Annise Parker on Thursday said she would create a human rights commission to review violations of anti-discrimination laws, saying just talking about equality in the nation’s most diverse city is not enough.
“We don’t care where you started your life, the color of your skin, your age, gender, what physical limitations you may have or who you choose to love,” Parker told the audience at the Greater Houston Partnership’s annual State of the City luncheon at the Hilton Americas. “Yet Houston is the only major city in the nation without civil rights protections for its residents.”
Parker said she has made an effort in recent months to speak with groups concerned about the proposal, including the Greater Houston Partnership, which sponsored the State of the City address.
“Their concerns were generally, ‘Why would you even want to bring something like this up? Things are going so well in Houston, and our international reputation is so good. You will bring the crazies out. It will make Houston look bad,’ ” the mayor recalled from a meeting with President and CEO Bob Harvey and Chairman Paul Hobby last month. “But that’s never a reason not to do things and, until they actually have an actual ordinance in front of them to attack, it is what it is.”
Parker said it was the second time she met with Partnership leaders to avoid “surprising anybody” as she works to transform the idea into a written ordinance. She said she hopes to have an ordinance ready for a City Council vote in May.
Maverick Welsh, president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, said he thinks Parker’s fear is that if the ordinance includes private-sector employers, it won’t have enough votes to pass the council. However, Welsh said the Caucus supports an ordinance that includes citywide employment protections.
“If you favor an ordinance that does not include private sector employment, you’re siding with the right of employers to discriminate,” Welsh told Lone Star Q on Friday. “My opinion is, put the right ordinance on the table, let the council vote on it in the open. Let them vote on it in the open, so the community can know, and hold people accountable. I don’t see any reason for us to compromise on this issue. Discrimination is discrimination.”
Welsh added that the Caucus will still support the proposed ordinance if it doesn’t include citywide employment protections. “I don’t think the perfect has to be the enemy of the good,” he said.
Welsh said the argument against citywide employment protections is that they would amount to over-regulation that hurts business. But Welsh said citywide employment protections would actually make Houston more competitive.
“If we have these protections in place, we’re going to attract the best and brightest talent,” he said.
Welsh said some also believe that if the ordinance includes citywide employment protections, opponents will gather enough signatures to place a recall on the ballot — a relatively simple process in Houston. But Welsh said he expects that to happen no matter what.
“She’s going to take all the political heat for this anyway,” Welsh said of Parker. “We compromise against ourselves, and they still go crazy.”
The Mayor had previously come under fire for not being quicker about bringing this forward. The Houston GLBT Caucus did issue a statement in support of the proposal, but the anecdotal evidence I’ve seen so far suggests the grumbling will continue for awhile. If Mayor Parker does bring this to Council on May 7, it will be on the heels of the Uber/Lyft ordinance, so I think it’s fair to say things are about to get interesting at City Hall. Personally, I agree with Maverick Welsh – I see no reason not to go full monty on this. You may wind up where the proposal is now as a reasonable fallback, but aiming for that position from the beginning was never going to calm the haters or keep the hand-wringers from wringing their hands. It’s what they do, so you may as well budget for it. We’ll see how it goes with Council. You can see a full copy of the State of the City address here, and Campos has more.