While the biggest news out of Washington the week of Jan. 22 will either be the government shutdown or the latest presidential tweet, a far more consequential event is unlikely to make major headlines. Mayors from across the nation will converge on the capital to work on critical issues affecting our nation: tackling the opioid epidemic, combating climate change or ending homelessness in our communities. These issues – more than any offensive nickname Donald Trump can come up with – is what will improve or hinder the lives of millions of Americans.
It is the leadership of mayors, as well as their colleagues in local governments, that have the most significant impact on people’s everyday lives. Local government ensures roads are built and repaired, trash is collected, and that law enforcement is properly protecting communities. The winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors is an opportunity for mayors to exchange ideas and brainstorm solutions, knowing they are more accountable to constituents than any politician at the federal level.
While all mayors have a broad array of responsibilities, LGBTQ mayors in particular take on additional duties – ensuring equality remains on the agenda and representing our community to the people they serve.
When I became mayor of Houston in 2010, I heard from dozens of parents of LGBTQ children who were overwhelmed about my election. They may or may not have agreed with all my policy positions, but my presence alone proved their children could pursue their dreams regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. They understood I would block attempts to harm our community, push forward pro-equality legislation and be a voice for the voiceless in a state that desperately needed it.
Mayors have more impact on daily life than any other elected official. LGBTQ mayors are champions for equality, but their agendas are much broader. Javier Gonzales was one of the first mayors in the country to declare that Santa Fe will continue to protect its immigrants despite federal threats to withhold funding. Jenny Durkan created a program to provide two years of free community college to any high school graduate in Seattle – and did it less than 24 hours after taking office. And in Long Beach, Robert Garcia is championing the creation of a world-class rail system that can transform the region. These are bold leaders with bold ideas.
And it was their ideas – not their sexual orientation or gender identity – that helped them win elected office in the first place. During my first two City Council campaigns, media outlets branded me the ‘lesbian candidate,’ focusing on my sexual orientation at the expense of covering my vision for the city. Two losses were the result. Before my third campaign, I sat down with editors and explained their failure to report on my policy agenda despite regularly covering the issue positions of my opponents. The coverage changed, and so did the results. I won my next nine elections – three each for city council, city controller and mayor.
With a constituent-focused agenda our people can win anywhere. Yet only 27 openly LGBTQ people are serving as mayor anywhere in the country. America needs more values-driven LGBTQ leaders who can advance equality and tackle the issues that matter to people’s lives. We need more LGBTQ people to run for office and be the change we want to see in America and the world.
The first office held may not be as sexy as governor or as powerful as big city mayor – maybe it’s a neighborhood commission, school board or city council. But these positions are vital to improving the lives of people across the nation, and are the stepping-stones to positions in state legislatures, the governors’ mansions and the U.S. Senate.
Are you ready to run? America and our community need you.
Annise Parker, former mayor of Houston, is president and CEO of LGBTQ Victory Institute, which trains LGBTQ leaders to run for office.