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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Parker’s Election More Than a Milestone

The big political story of the weekend has to be the election of City Controller Annise Parker as the first lesbian mayor of Houston. Yes, that’s right Houston, big-oil stronghold, Bush-rearing, 4th-largest-city-in-America Houston.
Although Democrat Parker is not the first openly-gay candidate to win an election for mayor of a major American city — Providence, RI and Portland, OR have had gay mayors — she will be the first openly-gay mayor of a megalopolis. She won with 52.8 percent of the vote in a run-off against another Democrat, highly-respected African American civil rights attorney, Gene Locke, who received 47.2 percent of the tally. Locke was supported by much of Houston’s business establishment.
Parker’s election is being heralded as, not only a major milestone for gay rights, but also a harbinger of new urban politics. But there are many traditional aspects of her election — low turnout (16.5 percent of eligible voters); her status as a born-and-raised, Rice-educated, life-long (except for 2 years) Houstonian; her fiscal conservatism creds, enhanced by a strong background in urban financial management; and her employment in the oil and gas industry for 20 years.
Although Parker and her partner for 19 years have adopted three children, Texas still has a state law that bans same-sex marriage. And Houston’s city council had earlier voted down benefits for same-sex partners.
According to The Houston Chronicle wrap up by Bradley Olson.

Her victory capped an unorthodox election season that lacked a strong conservative mayoral contender and saw her coalition of inside-the-Loop Democrats and moderate conservatives, backed by an army of ardent volunteers, win the day over Locke, a former civil rights activist who attempted to unite African-American voters and Republicans.
…In many ways, the race was framed by the financial anxieties voters have experienced over the past 18 months. At the polls, voter after voter cited Parker’s experience watching over the city’s $4 billion budget as a primary consideration in their choice…Instead of being turned off by a politician reluctant to promise the world, voters responded to Parker’s straight talk about all that might not be possible in the coming years. Dozens of Houstonians interviewed by the Houston Chronicle said they appreciated her often blunt answers that made Locke’s proposals seem vague.

In Rick Casey’s incisive analysis, also in The Chronicle, he adds:

His [Locke’s] backers had nothing against Parker but did not believe she could overcome the lesbian label. They believed Locke could win by combining the black vote with a substantial portion of Republicans who would vote against Parker because of her sexual orientation…That turned out to be wrong. For one thing, as the low turnout indicates, neither candidate had the star power to boost voter participation.
More important for Locke, his appeals to Republicans, particularly as a law-and-order candidate, didn’t stick, and the anti-lesbian vote turned out to be smaller than expected.
…Greg Wythe, a bright political analyst and blogger (www.gregsopinion.com) who has joined Mayor Bill White’s gubernatorial campaign, did a precinct-by-precinct analysis of the first-round of votes. It showed Parker coming in first or second in such Republican areas as the West Side, Kingwood and Friendswood. Locke came in a poor fourth in those areas.
I believe it was Locke’s performance in those areas that led his finance team members to take the desperate step of aligning the campaign with gay-bashing Steve Hotze — thereby pushing undecided white liberals and moderates into Parker’s well-run campaign without turning out enough anti-gay votes to win.

Despite the gay-bashing in the late weeks of the mayoral campaign, her sexual orientation was clearly a non-factor for most voters. The two most salient lessons of Parker’s election for Democratic candidates might be that gay-bashing doesn’t work in city-wide elections and impressive financial management creds are a formidable asset in urban politics.

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