The gay factor declines as an issue
Elections: Some say Dallas candidate's orientation won't affect mayor's race
01:26 PM CDT on Monday, June 4, 2007
By SHERRY JACOBSON / The Dallas Morning News
It was big news in gay political circles around the country when Ed Oakley won a place in Dallas' mayoral runoff three weeks ago.
"Councilman Ed Oakley is a step closer to becoming the nation's first openly gay mayor of one of the largest U.S. cities," noted the Web site of the national Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which has endorsed him and directed money to his campaign.
Mr. Oakley – who is facing Tom Leppert in the June 16 mayoral runoff – doesn't mention the groundbreaking nature of the election or even talk much about being gay these days
"It has never been an issue," said Mr. Oakley, who acknowledged his homosexuality when he ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Dallas City Council in 1993, and later when he won three council terms, representing Oak Cliff.
"Nobody brings it up," he said of voters who ask questions at candidate forums, where he and Mr. Leppert are appearing almost daily. "It's a complete non-issue."
Being an openly gay politician in Dallas no longer seems to be an insurmountable liability: Lupe Valdez, a lesbian, was elected sheriff in 2004. Last fall, Jim Foster, who also has acknowledged being gay, won the county judge's race to become leader of the Dallas County Commissioners Court, while Gary Fitzsimmons, also openly gay, took the county district clerk's job.
Now, Mr. Oakley could become Dallas' first openly gay mayor – in a city with long-standing conservative traditions.
How has this happened?
Local political observers say the recent victories by gay politicians must be viewed individually and not as a sign that a gay political machine has begun churning out unbeatable candidates.
No grand design suddenly swept gay candidates into office, insisted Shannon Bailey, president of the Texas Stonewall Democrats, a gay and lesbian group affiliated with the Democratic Party.
"Some of us are sitting around thinking: 'How did we do this?' " he said. "Some of it was riding the wave; and some of it was hard work."
Several of the winners, including Mr. Foster and Ms. Valdez, benefited from a network of gay supporters and a willingness to run on the Democratic ticket when few others would. They were on the ballot when the Democratic Party unexpectedly came back into power, but Ms. Valdez, Mr. Fitzsimmons and now Mr. Oakley also depended on having full-fledged campaigns – with a hefty infusion of funds and an army of volunteers to do the legwork.
Stonewall Democrats "put an extraordinary effort out because we don't have full civil rights in this community. We're like any minority group fighting for equality," Mr. Bailey said.
While Mr. Oakley is widely known throughout Dallas and has drawn substantial votes from southern Dallas, his strongest support comes from Oak Lawn, long considered the heart of Dallas' gay and lesbian neighborhoods, and his Oak Cliff council district.
The recent trend of gay victories, if it can be called that, started with Ms. Valdez in 2004.
Susan Hays, former chairwoman of the Dallas County Democratic Party, recalled that Ms. Valdez decided to run based on having nearly three decades of experience as a federal law enforcement officer. Before tackling her first political race, she got encouragement from Ms. Hays and Jose Plata, a fellow Democrat and Oak Cliff neighbor.
"Lupe came to me and said she wanted to run for sheriff. I said, 'Are you crazy?' " recalled Mr. Plata, the first openly gay trustee elected to the Dallas school board in 1995. "I told her I'd help her, and then I ran her primary race."
Ms. Valdez beat three Democratic candidates, including Mr. Foster, in a runoff. She won endorsements from other top Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson and former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk.
"But let me assure you, she wasn't running for office because she was gay," Mr. Plata stressed. "It was all about her skills, her professionalism, her energy and her competence."
Ms. Hays said the Democratic Party became involved in Ms. Valdez's campaign after she won the primary and had proven that she was comfortable in the race and conversant with voters.
"We made a strategic decision in the campaign that reporters would be told that she was gay and that we didn't care," Ms. Hays recalled. "We weren't asking people to date her. We were asking them to hire her to be the sheriff."
Likewise, Mr. Fitzsimmons' campaign for Dallas County district clerk focused on his lengthy experience running nonprofit agencies and not on his sexuality, although the fact he was gay was never hidden, Mr. Bailey said.
The district clerk's race was noncontroversial, until a last-minute flurry of calls to voters suggested that Mr. Fitzsimmons planned to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. The calls had no affect on the outcome – he won nearly 55 percent of the vote.
"We chose to ignore the phone calls and hope that voters realized that it was the county clerk who issues marriage licenses, not the district clerk," said Mr. Bailey, who was involved in Mr. Fitzsimmons' campaign, as were other Stonewall Democrats.
Some gay candidates, including Ms. Valdez, Mr. Fitzsimmons and Mr. Oakley, have had the advantage of attracting money not available to their nongay opponents. Conversely, gay candidates often do not attract money from traditional givers, such as the business community.
Several national organizations, including the Victory Fund, have sent money and political advice to openly gay candidates – but only those considered likely to win their races. It did not endorse Mr. Foster, for example, because locally, few people thought he would win the race.
Last fall, the Victory Fund's political action committee spread $1.3 million among 88 openly gay candidates around the country, said Denis Dison, spokesman for the group. Sixty-seven won their races.
Mr. Fitzsimmons received $10,125 from the group last year, while Ms. Valdez got $2,200 in 2004.
"We were founded 16 years ago to level the playing field for openly gay candidates," Mr. Dison said.
He would not reveal how much money the organization has sent to Mr. Oakley until after the mayoral runoff. However, the group's Web site noted that as of Saturday, it had raised $82,068 toward a $100,000 goal to boost his runoff bid.
Mr. Oakley, who reported raising $806,139 since last July, estimated he would need about $1 million for an effective runoff campaign.
Contributions to Mr. Oakley have come from across the U.S., although a majority of his donors are in Texas. Still, a $5,000 contribution in April from Tim Gill stands out. Purported to be the country's biggest donor to gay political campaigns and causes, he is able to steer funds not only to help gay candidates but also to oppose any candidate with an identifiably anti-gay agenda.
The recent local victories by gay candidates overshadow past struggles by their predecessors, who could not get a foothold in Dallas politics.
The Rev. James Harris, the first avowed homosexual to run for office locally, lost a Dallas City Council bid in 1977.
Gay activist Bill Nelson lost two bids for a council seat in the mid-1980s, although he believed his strong support of neighborhood issues made him a viable candidate.
Political consultants at the time warned against further ballot attempts by gay candidates, noting the lack of apparent tolerance of voters in a Bible-belt city.
Two decades later, former Democratic chairwoman Hays said she admired the willingness of gay candidates to be placed on the ballot when their likelihood of winning was not certain.
"The gay Democrats were willing to run when the other Democrats weren't," Ms. Hays said of their recent victories. "Historically, Dallas' gay community has been very organized and very smart about their politics."
Gay involvement in the local Democratic Party has grown dramatically in recent years, Mr. Bailey confirmed. Dallas County now has the largest chapter of Stonewall Democrats in Texas – with a paying membership of 500, compared with just 40 in 2000.
The party has welcomed the participation of gay Democrats, said Darlene Ewing, who has headed the Dallas County Democratic Party since 2005.
"I don't think people care about sexuality anymore, unless the person steps out of line, like Mark Foley," she said, referring to the Florida congressman who resigned last year and acknowledged he was gay after a scandal involving congressional pages.
The Stonewall faction appeared to have enough clout to persuade the county Democratic Party to endorse Mr. Oakley in the upcoming mayoral runoff. It was the first overt partisan endorsement in the largely nonpartisan mayor's race.
"We don't want it to be a referendum on Ed's sexual orientation," Mr. Bailey said. "We want it to be a referendum on the best person for mayor and the best person for the city."
The success of Democratic candidates in countywide races, including the handful of gay politicians, has been the eye-opener of recent political history. For nearly 20 years, Republicans have swept countywide races, often without Democratic challengers.
But in 2004, four out of six Democratic candidates in countywide races, including Ms. Valdez, won their races, each by 2 percentage points or less. And last November, Democrats swept all the countywide contests, including Mr. Fitzsimmons and Mr. Foster, who scored the surprise win of the political season.
Mr. Foster wasn't planning on running for county judge in 2006. A long list of prominent Democrats had considered or been asked to run for the post, including former state Rep. Domingo Garcia, Dallas lawyer Michael Sorrell, former council member Veletta Forsythe Lill and Regina Montoya.
But all the hopefuls decided not to challenge incumbent Margaret Keliher, who seemed to have a lock on the office. Even potential GOP foes grudgingly decided against challenging her in the primary.
But Mr. Foster stepped into the breach. Just moments before the deadline to be a candidate in the primary, he handed over his check and filed as the Democratic challenger for county judge. He was given little chance to win the general election.
Nonetheless, the new majority of Democratic voters awarded Mr. Foster the county judge's job, 51 percent to 49 percent.
"They were laughing us off, expecting 65 percent of the vote because everyone loved Judge Keliher," said Ms. Ewing, county Democratic chair, of her Republican counterparts.
After he won, Mr. Foster maintained that his decision to run – and subsequent victory – had nothing to do with being gay. "It wasn't an issue, one way or another," he said.
Still, the fact there are more gay officeholders in Dallas, particularly in such high-ranking positions, means a great deal to the gay community, both locally and nationally.
"It shows Dallas to be a much more mature and open city," said Craig McDaniel, the first openly gay candidate to win election to the Dallas City Council in 1993.
"We are being judged by voters for the job we would do in office, not for our private life," he said.
The Victory Fund spokesman said it would be historic if Mr. Oakley won the runoff.
"There are 18 U.S. cities with openly gay mayors," noted Mr. Dison, "the largest being Providence, R.I."
Dallas politicians, however, have not lagged in breaking down the stereotypical barriers to its top elective office. Annette Strauss became the first woman elected mayor in 1987, and Mr. Kirk was the city's first black mayor in 1995.
Mr. Oakley and Mr. Leppert are seeking to replace Laura Miller, the second woman to win the mayor's office.
Mr. Oakley's political career began as a neighborhood activist in Oak Lawn. He later moved to Oak Cliff, where his political base included blacks, Hispanics and whites, who tended to be Democrats.
When redistricting landed Mr. Oakley in District 3, he took on much of North Oak Cliff, which gave him a strong base of Democratic support.
Mr. Leppert, who has won the lucrative support of Dallas' business establishment, said he would not make his opponent's sexuality an issue in the race.
"I want people to focus on what we need to do to make Dallas the finest city in America," he said in a recent interview. Mr. Oakley's supporters have noticed, however, that Mr. Leppert frequently mentions that he is married and has children and often points out his wife at candidate forums.
"They use all the buzzwords about lifestyle, including references to his family and his children and his wife being in the audience," noted Mr. Bailey, who has attended recent forums.
Mr. Leppert said any references he has made to his family were an accurate description of his life and were not intended to draw a distinction between himself and Mr. Oakley.
"My wife, Laura, has attended probably 90 percent of the candidate forums since I first got into this race, when there were 20-some candidates," said Mr. Leppert, whose campaign has billed him as a seasoned businessman and political outsider.
On Election Day in May, a last-minute flurry of robo calls went out to Dallas voters, criticizing several of the mayoral candidates, including Mr. Oakley who was said to have a "radical gay agenda."
Longtime supporters of gay candidates insist there is no such agenda, noting that municipal issues involving gay rights already have been broached and resolved by the City Council.
The city killed the ban on gay police officers in 1993; it enacted a policy against discriminating against gays and lesbians in hiring in 1995; and in 2002, it adopted an ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, employment and in public accommodations.
Ms. Ewing, the local Democratic leader, said she did not expect voters to care that Mr. Oakley is gay.
However, other political leaders expressed reservations about bringing up Mr. Oakley's sexuality so close to the runoff. "I just don't want any negative effects on the election when this issue was not part of the general election," Mr. Bailey said.
Mr. Oakley appeared to be taking the issue in stride.
"I've been involved in politics since 1993, and I have never shied away from the fact I'm gay," he said. "It's part of who I am."
Staff writer Gromer Jeffers contributed to this report.