December 18, 2009 at 1:55 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Parker’s win hailed as major breakthrough

Gay rights advocates are heralding the victory of a lesbian official in her bid to become mayor of Houston as a triumph for LGBT Americans.

Annise Parker, a Democrat and city controller for Houston, won the city’s Dec. 12 mayoral election by taking 53 percent of the vote. Her win marks the seventh time she’s won a citywide election in Houston and makes the city the most populous in the country to elect an openly LGBT mayor. She takes office Jan. 4.

Paul Scott, executive director for Equality Texas, said Parker’s victory has “multi-layered” significance.

“I think in some ways, we’ve seen the ceiling being broken, not only within the Houston area and Texas, but also nationally in terms of an open lesbian being elected into the highest-level office in the metropolitan area for the fourth largest city in the country,” he said.

Chuck Wolfe, president of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which endorsed Parker in her race, said the win demonstrates LGBT people “are ready to step up and lead.”

“The voters of Houston have come to realize that sexual orientation is not an indicator of somebody’s ability to do a job,” he said.

Noting that Parker would be expected to testify before the Texas Legislature, Wolfe predicted her role would impact how state lawmakers view LGBT issues.

“When she is in Austin at the state capital — and testifying as the mayor of the largest city in Texas — those state legislators are not going to be able to use sexual orientation as a wedge when they realize they need the support of the largest city in Texas,” he said.

Scott said Parker’s election also could have a direct impact on the 2010 congressional and state House races in the Houston area and would prompt candidates seeking election to look more favorably on LGBT issues.

“As a result, we see this as a positive impact in terms of not only GLBT candidates being evaluated for their qualifications, but those who support GLBT issues also knowing that their stance on these issues does not have to be detrimental to their campaigns,” he said.

A longtime public official in Houston, Parker was first elected as Houston’s city controller in 2003, and before that served as a Houston City Council member since 1997.

In an interview Monday on MSNBC, Parker said she won because she’s truthful to her constituents.

“I’ve always been completely honest with the voters of Houston — whether [it’s] about my sexual orientation, whether it’s about the fact that my life partner of 19 years and I have multi-racial kids that we’ve adopted,” she said. “They know me, they trust me, they know I’ll tell them the truth, and in this economy, when there’s a lot of uncertainty, you want someone that you know you can depend on.”

She also is no stranger to fighting for LGBT rights, and campaigned against repeal of Houston’s non-discrimination policy in 1985 and passage of a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in Texas in 2005. As a city council member, she led an effort to pass an ordinance to reinstate Houston’s non-discrimination policy in 2001.

Asked by MSNBC whether LGBT rights would be a priority for her as mayor, Parker responded that’s “part of a hard conversation I had with supporters in the LGBT community.”

“I’ve been a role model and a hard worker for my community for more than 30 years, but in that conversation, I was very frank, and said, ‘My focus as mayor of Houston will be the financial issues of the city, trying to make Houston the best city it can be in dealing with those problems,’” she said.

Parker told MSNBC she assumes Houston will revisit the issue of providing domestic partner benefits to LGBT city workers, but said she doesn’t intend to make this effort a priority.

“It is not something I intend to initiate,” she said. “My focus is what is best for all the citizens of Houston.”

With Parker acknowledging she’s a role model for the LGBT community, Wolfe said her win could encourage other LGBT people to become public about their sexual orientation or gender identity and seek public office.

“I think the ability for other people interested in government — whether they are the young people in student government, whether they are closeted people in business who’ve thought about [how] they want to be involved and whether they should come out … I think that role model position she is in is significant,” he said.

The campaign wasn’t free of anti-gay smears. A mailing sent out earlier this month urged voters to reject Parker and other gay candidates because they were “endorsed by the gay and lesbian political action committee,” an apparent reference to Houston’s Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Political Caucus, according to the Houston Chronicle.

The Chronicle reported earlier this month that the finance chair and finance committee chair for Parker’s opponent in the election, Democrat Gene Locke, helped bankroll the political action committee that sent out the mailings. The Locke campaign denied the financial contributions were part of any kind of illegal coordination, according to the Chronicle.

Wolfe said Parker’s ability to win despite the mailings shows that employing divisive anti-gay politics in campaigns doesn’t work and is “starting to have the opposite effect.”

In her MSNBC interview, Parker addressed the anti-gay smears.

“The fact that I used to be — or was a very public gay activist is part of my political resume,” she said. “Voters knew that, they were reminded of it in a very negative way in the last two weeks of the campaign, but they chose to focus on the fact that they knew me and done good work for them, I believe.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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