A Place in the Spotlight

Annise Parker makes history in Houston.
by Published on

Annise Parker had her opening line ready on Saturday night when it came time to thank supporters for electing her mayor of Houston. She will be the first, the first—wait for it—Rice graduate to serve in the spot.

That got a huge laugh from the crowd. Everyone in the room knew what Parker’s real epithet, one that will make her a national figure in the theater of politics, will be: the first lesbian mayor of a major American city. After gay marriage has suffered a series of electoral setbacks, Houston, the macho oil capital of the country has put a lesbian in the national spotlight.

Annise Parker is going to have a bully pulpit, whether she wants it or not. And the questions are unlikely to be about Houston’s city budget, a subject on which she is thoroughly knowledgeable.

The mayor’s job is far from glamorous or even particularly political. A good mayor gets the potholes filled, keeps the garbage, sewage and water working, and makes sure the police and firefighters are happy. A mayor can’t legitimize same-sex marriage, and Parker pledged not to make her sexual orientation a policy matter in running the city. She is, by all descriptions, a policy wonk and a bean-counter. She has portrayed herself as a fiscal conservative who will balance the books—a tricky task, since she projects the size of the city’s deficit at $103 million, tens of millions more that what outgoing mayor and gubernatorial contender Bill White says it is.

Parker has never been secretive about her sexual orientation, and it has never cost her an election as she won three terms as a City Council member and three terms as City Comptroller. It didn’t cost her the mayor’s race either, though her opponent, Gene Locke, and a handful of anti-gay cultural warriors tried to make it an issue during the last two weeks of the campaign.

Locke was a civil rights activist in the early 1970s at the University of Houston, then went to law school and became a behind-the-scenes player as a city attorney for former mayor and developer Bob Lanier, then as an attorney for Metro, Houston’s mass transit agency, and lobbyist for the Houston Sports Authority. Locke was the choice of the Greater Houston Partnership, Houston’s powerful business leadership group.

There was little difference between the candidates on the issues. both were Democrats who portrayed themselves as fiscal conservatives. In November, after Parker and Locke emerged for the runoff, the two mayoral candidates to their left and right both endorsed Parker. Councilman Peter Brown, the most liberal contender, poured a considerable amount of his personal fortune into running for mayor, but placed third. He turned his support to Parker. Roy Morales, a conservative Republican, pulled a surprising 20 percent of the vote and he, too, decided to support Parker. It began to look as though the mayor’s race was nonpartisan in both name and action.

Only about 60,000 Houstonians in the  city of 2.2 million openly declare themselves to be gay or lesbian. But many of worked hard for Parker, helping her put together a stronger, better-organized grassroots campaign than Locke. And since the runoff pulled fewer than 160,000 votes from a city of 2.2 million, every vote counted. Despite his business support and financial resources, Locke ran a lackluster campaign. One longtime observer of the Houston political scene said that Locke seemed to lack the “fire in the belly.”

To distinguish himself from Parker, Locke declared himself to be tougher on crime. He pledged to put more police on the streets than Parker. On his website he was shown staring into a laptop computer propped on the hood of a police cruiser. Two of Houston’s finest were standing behind him. One of them was wearing a combat helmet. Locke would be the general behind the war on crime.

Parker kept to her centrist message: an experienced fiscal conservative who would manage the budget well, while Locke was a politician who would mismanage it. (How for instance, would he pay for all those new police officers he promised when the city is already running a deficit?)

Two weeks ago, when the polls showed Locke was behind, his campaign set loose the anti-gay rhetoric. A handful of black pastors excoriated Parker’s homosexuality. One of Locke’s supporters, business leader and former port commissioner Ned Holmes, put $20,000 into the hands of Steven Hotze, a right-wing evangelical doctor who is horrified by what he called the “homosexual agenda.” Another $20,000 came from James Dannenbaum, who is on Locke’s finance committee. Hotze sent out fliers condemning Parker, but the funding sources were soon outed by reporters. Parker countered with a flier condemning Locke as a lawyer and lobbyist, an insider for the business community.

In a sense, Hotze is right. There is a homosexual agenda, but it is not the one he thinks it is. As I stood in the room at the George R. Brown Convention Center, waiting for the first lesbian mayor of a major U.S. city to announce her victory, the platform slowly filled. Who was that matronly woman in the purple dress with the stylish black eye glasses? She seemed too giddy to be a professional campaign manager. And that tall young African American with the shaved head? Maybe a body guard? And those two adorable African-American young women, the youngest people on the stage?

Soon I knew, as the rest of the nation will know. The woman was Annise Parker’s partner of nearly 20 years, Kathy Hubbard. The tall guy and the adorable girls were their adopted children. The first family of Houston may not resemble Steven Hotze’s family, but it is a family that embodies  love and commitment. It’s as good a family as anybody else’s. And that’s what the gay community has been saying for the last forty years.

For the gay and lesbian community, the election of Annise Parker is a big deal. For the nation, it’s a big deal. For the voters of Houston, maybe it was not such a big deal. They’d already elected her six times.

Berryhill is an assistant professor of journalism at the Valenti School of Communication, University of Houston.