Sometimes members of the far right have to work pretty hard to maintain a posture of victimization, to connect distant dots suggesting that a Radical Homosexual Agenda or Lavender Menace is snaking its tastefully dressed tendrils through the halls of governance to undermine the will of Decent Christian People Trying to Protect Their Families ™.
Monday was not that day.
At a press conference Monday afternoon, Houston City Attorney David Feldman announced that a petition challenging a new Equal Rights Ordinance had failed. Opponents fell just over 2,000 signatures short of the 17,269 needed to put a repeal of the ordinance on the November ballot. Mayor Annise Parker said she expected the issue to end up in court and that the courts would agree with the city’s assessment, but that she would delay implementation in the meantime.
But here’s the twist—the petitioners actually had plenty of valid individual signatures. What undid them was the disqualification of thousands of entire pages of signatures. More than half the 5,199 pages submitted were invalid because the collectors weren’t registered Houston voters, hadn’t personally signed the petition, hadn’t had the page properly notarized, or some combination—all requirements set forth in the city charter. Thus, it’s possible that outraged petitioners will challenge not only the city’s count of valid signatures but also the city charter rules themselves.
David Welch of the Houston Area Pastor Council, a leader of the petition effort, says he expects to prevail. “We were well aware we were dealing with an administration that’s willing to bend the rules,” Welch told the Houston Chronicle. “Courts typically uphold the rights of the voters. We feel very confident in how that will go. Frankly, there was no respect for the rights of the voters in this process.”
Naturally, Mayor Parker expects the same. “I’m confident that the courts will agree with the strict interpretation of the rules set out in the charter for the requirements and that the courts will protect the integrity of our petition process,” Parker said at the press conference.
Whatever the courts decide, the ordinance is essentially safe from repeal for the time being. State law sets the deadline for the November ballot just two weeks from now, meaning a court would have to be decide in the petitioners’ favor in that time. Meanwhile, Mayor Parker said she’d delay implementation but didn’t say for how long.
The petition’s failure might have been surprising—opponents said they turned in 50,000 signatures, after all—if not for the shadowy efforts of an anonymous party that posted the petitions online and invited visitors to scour them for problems. Noel Freeman, a public policy analyst and treasurer of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, says he didn’t post the materials but is spearheading an independent review of them using the website, HEROpetition.com. He predicted Monday’s outcome, telling the Chronicle almost 3,000 pages were invalid. Freeman explained to the magazine OutSmart, “The petitions are a mess. They are the worst petitions I’ve ever seen.”
That Freeman and his cohort saw the petitions at all could prompt more fear of a Queer Conspiracy. As Buzzfeed.com noted, the domain name was registered on July 3, the same day the petitions were turned in, through a service that masks the registrant’s identity. But while the registrant is masked, the name and address of all those who opposed the ordinance are exposed. Petitions are public record, but still—if one were already inclined to fear mistreatment or intimidation by a powerful political figure who is gay, which Mayor Parker is, the events around the petition drive would not inspire confidence.
Now, however, Houston’s journey toward an equal rights ordinance at last gets boring. The online petitions have been taken down. All the council meetings have been met, the rallies rallied, the droves of witnesses indignantly cut off before they were done. The council voted, made their speeches, and the waves of misinformation and bigotry washed around town for several weeks in response. If the petition drive had succeeded, ordinance opponents would have had momentum, keeping the hysteria stoked through November. But now the trudging legal system takes over and there’s not much for Houston’s anti-HEROs to do. Even if they prevail in court, a vote to repeal the ordinance wouldn’t happen until November 2015 unless the City Council decided to set a special election for it, which they aren’t likely to do. By then, even the intrigue and outrage prompted by this contentious petition process is likely to have faded.