Equality Texas executive director hopes more Democrats in state House can help keep anti-gay legislation off the books
AUSTIN —After a constitutional amendment banning gay adoption passed easily in Arkansas on Tuesday, Nov. 4, the leader of Texas’ statewide LGBT equality group said he fears a similar proposal here in 2009.
But Paul Scott, executive director of Equality Texas, said he hopes the new, more Democratic makeup of the state Legislature would prevent an effort to ban gay adoption — as well as other potential anti-gay legislation — from gaining traction.
Voters in Arkansas on Tuesday passed a constitutional amendment banning unmarried couples living together from serving as adoptive or foster parents, by a margin of 57 percent to 43 percent, according to unofficial results. Arkansas became the fourth state with some form of ban on gay adoptive parents.
Gay adoption is viewed by some as an emerging culture war similar to same-sex marriage, and Scott said he fears the Arkansas constitutional amendment could embolden anti-LGBT forces in additional states.
"Our concern is, is this kind of the next wave of social conservatives’ efforts to get people out to the polls?" Scott said Wednesday. "It just really requires us to be vigilant. It’s been their modus operandi to get people engaged and to the polls. I think Texas is a different state than Arkansas, but I think this requires us to makes sure that we continue to do the work that we do, so it doesn’t happen here."
Texas is arguably more progressive than Arkansas. The other states with bans on gay adoption are Florida, Mississippi and Utah.
Scott also noted that unlike Arkansas, Texas doesn’t have an initiative process for placing constitutional amendments on the ballot.
Therefore, a ban on gay adoption or foster parenting would have to start with the Legislature. For a constitutional amendment to be placed on the ballot in Texas, it requires a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and the Senate.
The Legislature could also pass a statutory ban on gay adoption or foster parenting with a simple majority in both chambers. According to Equality Texas, there have been unsuccessful attempts to do so in 1999, 2001, 2003 and 2005.
But Scott said he’s hopeful that the results of Tuesday’s election will make it less likely for legislators to launch anti-gay attacks. As of Wednesday morning, Democrats were expected to pick up at least three seats in the state House, meaning Republicans would have a tenuous 76-74 majority. There was also a possibility that the chamber would be split evenly at 75 Republicans and 75 Democrats. Incumbent Rep. Linda Harper Brown, R-Irving, led by 25 votes over Democratic challenger Bob Romano with 280 provisional ballots yet to be counted.
"It’s a better day for us, it’s a better day for Texas, regardless of what happens [in that race]," Scott said. "We see this really as a positive outcome."
Democrats also picked up a seat in the state Senate, with Democratic challenger Wendy Davis defeating Republican incumbent Kim Brimer in Fort Worth. And they’re hoping to pick up another seat in Houston, where Democrat Chris Bell and Republican Joan Huffman are headed to a runoff in December.
Scott noted that in addition to Turner’s victory, several key Democratic wins in the House occurred in North Texas. Democrat Carol Kent unseated incumbent Republican Tony Goolsby in Dallas, Democrat Robert Miklos won the seat formerly held by Republican Thomas Latham in Mesquite, and Democrat Chris Turner defeated incumbent Republican Bill Zedler in Arlington.
Zedler was the author of a recent bill targeting Gay-Straight Alliances in Texas schools, and Turner had been endorsed by Equality Texas’ PAC, Texas Equity, Scott said.
Kent, Turner, Davis and Bell received financial support from the Human Rights Campaign’s Texas Families PAC, according to Jeff Strater, co-chairman of HRC’s DFW steering committee.
Jesse Garcia, president of Stonewall Democrats of Dallas, said the group endorsed Bell when he ran for governor in 2006. Davis, meanwhile, named Zoning Commission appointee Joel Burns her heir apparent when she stepped down from the Fort Worth City Council to run for Senate last year. Burns subsequently became Tarrant County’s first openly gay elected official.
Kent and Miklos declined to seek endorsements this year from Stonewall Democrats, North Texas’ largest LGBT political group, but Garcia said the two candidates didn’t specify a reason.
In general, even gay-friendly candidates are sometimes reluctant to court LGBT groups if they fear endorsements could be used against them among socially conservative voters.
Garcia said Kent addressed the Texas Stonewall Democratic Caucus — made up of Stonewall chapters throughout the state — at this year’s state convention in Austin, while Miklos has attended local Stonewall meetings.
Scott, Garcia and other LGBT leaders are hoping the changes in the House will mean the end of the line for Speaker Tom Craddick, whose hard-line conservative leadership has encouraged anti-gay bills and stifled pro-equality measures. Craddick barely survived an effort to unseat him amid opposition from members of both parties last year.
"You can never count Craddick out because you do have Democrats who’ve been aligned with Craddick," Scott said. "It depends on whether he’s able to keep some of the Democrats on his side."
If there is a change in leadership in the House, it could pave the way for LGBT advances in next year’s biannual session. Equality Texas plans to push proposals that would outlaw anti-gay bullying in schools and prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in workplaces, as well as a measure that would grant hospital visitation rights to same-sex partners.
But Scott acknowledged it will be an uphill struggle to get pro-equality legislation passed, with some Democrats representing socially conservative districts and with another big election looming in 2010.
"I think the political reality is that any time you see a narrow line between the two parties, it’s going to be more difficult to get things through in that first cycle," Scott said.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 7, 2008.