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What next for HERO?

Before I get into some thoughts about how to approach a second attempt at passing a non-discrimination ordinance for Houston, let me begin by dispensing with this.

HoustonUnites

2. HERO Will Be Back

The lopsided defeat of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) will send the next mayor and city council back to the drawing board at the start of 2016. They would be expected to, in relatively short order, pass a new Houston Equal Rights Ordinance that is very similar to the ordinance that was just repealed, with one principal exception. The revised version of the ordinance would modify the public accommodation component of the repealed ordinance so that it does not apply to discrimination based on biological sex in regard to access to private facilities such as restrooms, locker rooms and showers.

A relatively expeditious passage of this revised equal rights ordinance would ameliorate, though not entirely erase, the short-term negative impact of the lopsided “No” victory on Houston’s image nationwide. The rapid adoption of this new ordinance also would largely eliminate the risk of Houston losing conventions, sporting events, corporate relocations and corporate investment as a consequence of the Nov. 3 HERO repeal. And, since this new equal rights ordinance would address the principal public critique of the “No” campaign, it would be virtually bulletproof against any future repeal efforts.

All due respect, but that gives way way waaaaaaaaaaay too much credit to the leaders of the anti-HERO movement. The people behind this – Woodfill, Hotze, the Pastors Council – have a deep-seated loathing of Mayor Parker and the LGBT community in general, which is what drove their opposition to HERO. Changing the wording in the ordinance in this fashion would not suddenly turn them into fair-minded and honorable opponents who would have engaged in a debate on the merits of this law. That’s not who they are, that’s not what they do, and thinking that making some sort of “reasonable” accommodation to them would be rewarded with reasonable behavior on their part is as deeply naive as thinking that if President Obama had just tried to accommodate Republican concerns about the Affordable Care Act then no one would have ever screamed about death panels. The way to beat people like this is to make it clear to everyone watching that they are the raving lunatics we know them to be. If there’s a way to insert some legalese into HERO 2.0 to make it double secret illegal for anyone to harass and assault people in bathrooms while still providing protection for people who just need to pee to do their business, then fine. Do that for the sake of having the talking point. Just don’t fall for the idea that this somehow “takes the issue off the table” or forces the opposition to behave like rational beings.

Now on to the main discussion.

As supporters of Houston’s equal rights ordinance pieced together how the law came to suffer such an overwhelming defeat at the polls Tuesday, political scientists and even some campaign supporters pointed to what they said was a key misstep: poor outreach to black voters.

Majority black City Council districts were among those most decisively rejecting the law Tuesday, including District B and District D, where 72 percent and 65 percent of voters, respectively, opted to repeal the law. Overall, complete but unofficial results showed 61 percent of voters against the law and 39 percent for it.

Heading into the election, polling showed black voters, traditionally more socially conservative, were the most likely to be undecided on the issue, said Bob Stein, a Rice University political scientist.

In the same polling, supporters did best with black voters when they presented the argument that repealing the ordinance would jeopardize the city’s economy and events such as the Super Bowl and NCAA.

Well, Houston will not be getting the college football championship game in the next few years, though the committee making that decision says local politics had nothing to do with it. San Antonio’s bid for the game was also denied, so I’d tend to believe that. Neither the Final Four nor the Super Bowl appear to be going anywhere, which is what I would expect – these are big events that take a lot of time to plan and execute and thus aren’t easily relocated, and I never believed that NFL owners would embarrass a fellow member of their club like that. A big national outcry might have an effect, but I seriously doubt Houston’s non-discrimination ordinance is on enough people’s radar for that. While I do believe that the HERO rejection will make it harder for Houston to land events like these going forward – the NCAA spokesperson vaguely alluded to that in the statement about the Final Four – this was always my concern about making such specific claims, given that we had no control over them.

Monica Roberts, a transgender black woman and GLBT activist, called the Houston Unites effort a “whitewashed campaign” that failed to adequately respond to the bathroom issue and reach out to the black community in a meaningful way.

On her popular blog, TransGriot, she wrote that the warning signs that the law could go down by a significant margin were present early on.”

“The Black LGBT community and our allies have been warning for months that action was needed in our community IMMEDIATELY or else HERO was going down to defeat,” she wrote. “We pleaded for canvassing in our neighborhoods, pro-HERO ads on Houston Black radio stations and hard hitting attacks to destroy the only card our haters had to play in the bathroom meme.”

But even ads featuring Houston NAACP president James Douglas endorsing the ordinance were not enough to erode critics’ lead with black voters.

Douglas said he was hesitant to comment on what might have worked with black voters because he had not seen the results broken out by precinct.

“I’m not sure what supporters could have done,” Douglas said. “Most of the people I’ve talked to said it was all about the restroom fear. They literally see it as ‘I don’t want that to happen to someone that I know.'”

Councilman Jerry Davis, who represents the majority black District B that includes Fifth Ward and Acres Homes, said outreach in the black community was simply “way too little, way too late.”

Davis is among the 11 council members who voted in favor of the law. As he visited polling sites in his district Tuesday, he said residents’ skepticism about the ordinance had not budged during the past year.

“You can’t win this debate at the polls; it’s too late,” Davis said. “Voters were confused. They wanted to understand that this was an equal rights law, that it would help them. But instead they couldn’t get this visual out of their heads of a man entering a woman’s restroom. Opponents told that story over and over and over again until it was too late for Houston Unites.”

University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said opponents were first out of the gates with their messaging, framing the debate around the bathroom issue, and supporters never caught up.

“The pro-HERO folks needed to have a public face much earlier than they did,” Rottinghaus said. “There was no personality to HERO, and I think that hurt the pro-HERO folks because it wasn’t clear what people were voting in favor of.”

This is the discussion now, and there was a lot of it happening behind the scenes before. I’m going to address it by talking about what I’d like to see happen for the next time.

By now we know that many African-American voters supported Sylvester Turner and voted against HERO. That’s disheartening, but it does provide a way forward. If elected, Mayor Turner would start out with a much higher level of trust and goodwill with these voters than Mayor Parker (who never received a significant level of support in African-American precincts) ever had. He will have an opening and an opportunity to bring forth another version of HERO (modified as needed with whatever legal mumbo-jumbo about bathrooms) and restart the discussion. This is how I would suggest going about it:

1. Acknowledge what happened, and assert the need to try again. I have no doubt that Sylvester Turner is capable of delivering a speech that acknowledges the problems with HERO that led to its defeat at the ballot box, while simultaneously emphasizing the need for our city to have an ordinance in place that does what HERO did. He could do this as part of his inaugural address, or he could wait for the State of the City in April, but sooner would be better than later. Acknowledge what happened, state the need for action, and call on everyone to join him.

2. Get out of City Hall and bring the conversation to the neighborhoods. Have a Council hearing in Acres Homes and/or Sunnyside. Have community meetings in multiple places all over the city (like Metro did with bus system reimagining) like multi-service centers and schools and wherever else is suitable, with some during the day and some in the evening and some on weekends to accommodate people’s work schedules. Have a brief presentation up front, then devote most of the time to letting the attendees speak so you can answer their questions and hear their concerns and address any good points they bring up that you hadn’t previously thought of. Mayor Turner himself needs to lead these meetings and make it clear that he supports doing this and is asking the people in attendance to join him. Note that I’m not just suggesting African-American neighborhoods for these meetings, either. Have them in Latino neighborhoods, and in Alief and out on Harwin and Bellaire Boulevard. Have plenty of folks who speak Spanish and Vietnamese and Chinese with you, and make sure any printed and electronic materials are multi-lingual as well. If we’re not talking to the people, we can’t complain if someone else is.

3. Roll out an advertising campaign along with this ongoing conversation. We know that the antis had a messaging advantage because they got their ads out first and we had to respond. They were already organized by the time the Supreme Court stuck their nose into things, while we had to get up and going from scratch. We can’t let that happen again. The next version of HERO needs to be sold from the beginning, so we can be the ones to set the tone and the message. In this day and age, that means setting up a PAC, tapping a few deep pockets to fund it, and getting going with the ads, for TV and radio and print and the Internet and whatever else you can think of. Treat it like a campaign, because that’s what it is. If the complaint from this election is that too many people didn’t know what HERO actually did, then this is the way to make sure that doesn’t happen with HERO 2.0. Be very clear and very thorough about who is protected, how it works, why we need it, and so forth. By all means, lean heavily on the business and economic argument, though as noted above be careful on the specifics. The lack of this kind of campaign has been a problem with lots of legislative initiatives in recent years – Obamacare and Renew Houston, for instance. There’s plenty of news about them while they’re being done, but the vast majority of communication to people who don’t consume a lot of news comes from opponents, not supporters. That can’t happen this time. Sell it like a new product coming to market, and sell the hell out of it.

4. Mayor Turner has to be the face of all this. Am I the only one who has noticed that Mayor Parker was largely invisible during the pro-HERO campaign? I’m sure some of that is because of a wholly understandable desire on her part to stay out of the Mayor’s race, and some of that was a strategic calculation that having her front and center would not be an asset in African-American neighborhoods. Whatever the case, this is the Mayor’s initiative, and the Mayor needs to be the focal point for it. Given that a lot of the people he would need to persuade to support this proposal are already supporters of his, there’s no other way to do this.

Now it may well be that a Mayor Turner will not be terribly enthusiastic about spending his time and political capital on this issue. There are plenty of other things on his to-do list, and there’s only so much time in the day/week/year. It’s going to be on HERO supporters to hold his feet to the fire and get him to devote time and energy to this. HERO may have lost this week, but Sylvester Turner isn’t going to win in December without a big showing from HERO proponents, and I’m sure he knows that. I’m sure he also knows that the business community is concerned and is expecting him to take action on this. The time to act is sooner rather than later, but it won’t happen without a push.

Does this guarantee a better outcome? Of course not. The haters will never go away, and some number of people we’d like to persuade won’t buy it. Some people will argue to wait till some undetermined later date when the things they deem to be higher priorities have been solved to their satisfaction, and others will come up with new and more egregious lies to tell. I’m sure there are things I’m not thinking of, and I’m sure some of the things I’m suggesting are much easier said than done. I think we all agree that for all the good work that Houston Unites and others did, there were things that could have been done differently. Some of that was a lack of time, thanks to the Supreme Court ruling. No one knew we needed to be prepared to wage a campaign like this. All I’m saying is that this time we do know, so we may as well start preparing for it. Danny Surman, who has another perspective on what happened, has more.

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14 Comments

  1. Paul Kubosh says:

    I am telling you its a lot cheaper and far more effective to just get the signatures needed for a charter change. Just do it.

  2. Nick Norboge says:

    Also, in the very near-term if I were recruiting firm hired to attract people to Houston or the GHP attempting to attract professionals (especially younger professionals) who are concerned about the HERO failure, I’d at least point to a map of areas where it passed. Where it passed and where it didn’t is clear. Long-term we absolutely need a city-wide ordinance, but at least in the short-term we can point out that HERO didn’t fail everywhere and start the conversation from there.

  3. Mainstream says:

    I would suggest that council take up a limited equal rights ordinance only addressing housing and employment right away. Its passage would soften the national narrative that Houston countenances discrimination, and I think candidates in the Dec. 12 runoff who would waffle on whether they support such an ordinance would be exposed for their true values. Opponents would likely oppose, again, not by addressing he substance of the ordinance but by some side arguments, like it is divisive to bring this up so soon, that it fails to respect the voice of the 61% who voted no on HERO, etc.

  4. voter_worker says:

    The Chronicle reports this morning that Mayor Parker may try again before leaving office. She doesn’t need my advice, but here it is anyway: please don’t. An election result is an election result; she should simply place the project in the hands of the next Mayor, and say whatever it is mayors need to say to acknowledge the result as a win for the opposition and we move on from here.

  5. Manuel Barrera says:

    With two years terms, it was not a viable option to seek recalls, with four year terms it is certainly one option to consider for some of the returning HERO supporters who again vote to support after the voters have spoken.

  6. Danny Surman says:

    Parker did opine on HERO during the campaign and generated press, but I think it was largely counter-productive. She picked a fight with freaking Lance Berkman, distracting from other messaging without really beating him either.

  7. tinyvoices says:

    Great analysis, Charles, but then all of these things should have been obvious for the Houston Unites team. What i’d really like to know is what idiots ran their campaign and how did they get the job? Our city had gone backwards because of their professional incompetence.

  8. Bill Daniels says:

    I just can’t figure out how Houston got any convention, tourism, and sporting event business all these years without having this ordinance? If it wasn’t a problem all those years, why is it such a huge and pressing problem now? Is there more discrimination going on now than before the ordinance was dreamed up? Now that it was decisively defeated, are businesses going to start discriminating, when they did not do so before? In short, what has changed in Houston?

  9. Robbie Westmoreland says:

    The discrimination existed and continues to exist. It just wasn’t visible, because there was little recourse for victims of discrimination and no mainstream press coverage.
    Compare, for example, decades of “separate but equal” for black and Latino citizens before the Mendez v Westminster and Brown v Board started putting discrimination into the public eye.

    So now discrimination in Houston is in the public mind of people outside looking in. Whether that has any impact other than generally reaffirming our status as hick bigots in the minds of the rest of the country and the world remains to be seen, but personally I get tired of having to be an apologist for a place that has a lot to recommend it.

  10. Bill Daniels says:

    The Republican Moral Majority used the same arguments when they were ramrodding HB 2 (the abortion clinic harassment bill) through the legislature. According to them, women were being abused and mistreated by the abortion clinics, even though nobody ever heard any complaints from the women themselves.

    All the usual self identifying victim groups have their own mouthpieces, and those victim group representatives don’t seem to have any problem getting airtime for their pressers, so I’m having a bit of trouble with the argument that this widespread discrimination just wasn’t visible.

  11. What if a (presumed) Mayor Turner declines to be “the face of this”?

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