2011 mayoral hopefuls reach out to LGBT voters like never before
JOHN WRIGHT | Online Editor
All three major candidates for Dallas mayor are actively courting the LGBT vote in 2011.
City Councilman Ron Natinsky, former Parks Board Chairman Mike Rawlings and former Police Chief David Kunkle each pledged their support for the community in recent interviews with Dallas Voice.
And all three sought endorsements from both Stonewall Democrats and the Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance, although Natinsky pulled out of Stonewall’s candidate screening over questions about his eligibility for the group’s backing.
Openly gay former City Councilman Ed Oakley, who was defeated in a runoff for mayor by Tom Leppert in 2007, called the 2011 mayor’s race “a watershed moment for the community.”
“It’s unprecedented,” Oakley said. “I’m very proud of Dallas that we have matured to this point. The mayor down the road who doesn’t seek our support will rue the day that they snubbed this community.”
Four years ago, Leppert failed to respond to DGLA’s endorsement questionnaire, which Oakley says should have been a red flag. Leppert also refused to answer when asked whether he was “gay-friendly,” saying he didn’t know what the term meant.
But Leppert vowed during his runoff campaign against Oakley to be the mayor for all of Dallas, and for his first two years in office, he appeared to live up to the promise.
Then, when Leppert began weighing a run for U.S. Senate, he joined the virulently anti-gay First Baptist Church. And later, after stepping down as mayor to run for Senate, he came out against both same-sex marriage and civil unions.
Leppert’s shift to the right on LGBT issues left many in the community feeling angry and betrayed.
All three major candidates in this year’s race insisted they’d never throw the LGBT community under the bus. But while they’re all going after the gay vote, their records and positions on LGBT issues vary.
Oakley said it’s impossible to guarantee that something like Leppert’s betrayal of the community never happens again, but he agreed that the episode underscores the importance of the mayor’s race.
“We need to be supporting candidates that truly have a history in this community, not just when they’re running,” he said.
Oakley is one of three openly gay former Dallas city councilmen who’ve endorsed Natinsky for mayor.
And Natinsky touted the support of Oakley and former Councilmen Chris Luna and Craig Holcomb when asked why the LGBT community should vote for him.
“It’s a proven track record,” said Natinsky, a regular at meetings of the gay group Log Cabin Republicans. “I’ve taken part in LGBT events, and I’ve been in the parade and I’ve gone to Black Tie. It’s a proven element.
“It’s really easy for people to say, ‘Well, if you elect me, I’ll go do these things.’ It’s another when you’ve been doing it for a number of years.”
During his six years on the council, Natinsky never appointed an openly LGBT person to a city board or commission, but he said it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Natinsky said he approached members of the LGBT community who live in his district, but they declined to serve due to business and personal obligations. He said he wouldn’t hesitate to appoint openly LGBT people to boards and commissions as mayor.
In 2008, Natinsky voted against a budget amendment that would have restored $250,000 in funding for HIV/AIDS services. He said he opposed the amendment, which failed 9-6, because he didn’t believe the proposed funding source was reliable.
Natinsky, like the other two candidates for mayor, vowed to defend existing Dallas ordinances offering domestic partner benefits to city employees, and prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing and public accommodations.
He also said he would support the expansion of LGBT diversity training, currently conducted by the Dallas Police Department, to Dallas Fire-Rescue.
Natinsky also said he supports the concept of requiring city contractors to offer domestic partner benefits, but would first want to research the legality.
“If there’s not any negative repercussions, or some reason that we can’t do it from a legal perspective, it’s certainly something that we need to try to move forward on,” he said.
Natinsky said he supports an ongoing review by two council members — Angela Hunt and Pauline Medrano — of the city’s handling of complaints under the nondiscrimination ordinance.
But he said he would be reluctant to create a council-appointed LGBT human relations commission due to its price tag.
Natinsky said while he’s “open” to the idea, the annual cost in staff time for a commission can be up to $250,000. He suggested that the same goals could be accomplished through regular meetings between the mayor and LGBT leaders.
“We have to be careful that we don’t put another layer of institutional bureaucracy in place,” Natinsky said. “If it comes down to whether we’re going to lay off a police officer or have another board, that’s kind of a tough decision to make.”
Natinsky pulled out of the Stonewall Democrats’ endorsement process at the last minute because it appeared he was ineligible for the group’s backing due to his Republican primary voting record.
He said he was somewhat disappointed that he wasn’t able to seek Stonewall’s endorsement, which he called a natural extension of his campaign. But he said he doesn’t believe his party affiliation will hurt him among LGBT voters, and he dismissed any comparisons to Leppert.
For one, he said he doesn’t have any political aspirations beyond the mayor’s office.
“He’s Tom and I’m Ron,” Natinsky said. “I’m the guy that’s running for mayor, and he’s not, so I think you need to go on my track record and my reputation.”
Natinsky is Jewish but said he is not affiliated with any congregation. Asked whether he supports same-sex marriage, Natinsky said: “This is not a city issue; it is handled at the state and federal level. I do have several longtime close friends, including Craig Holcomb and Hector Garcia, who are happily married. However, the mayor has no jurisdiction over these matters.”
Like Natinsky, Kunkle pointed to his record of working with the community as one reason why LGBT voters should cast their ballots for him.
“I’m a known quantity,” Kunkle said. “I have a proven track record. I’m very comfortable in the LGBT community.
“I believe that one of the things that makes Dallas a special place is the fact that our LGBT community is so large and accommodating. And it helps bring people to this city probably from throughout the United States, but certainly from throughout the Southwest part of the United States, to be able to come to a community where there’s support and there are interesting, cool, things to do,” he said. “I’m the known candidate. We want to work hard to make sure there’s full inclusion.”
Kunkle, who received the endorsement of Stonewall Democrats of Dallas, said as police chief, he always took seriously the concerns of the LGBT community.
Kunkle said he rode in the Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade each year because he felt it was “an important thing to do symbolically.”
“I probably got more criticism for riding than anybody, maybe even the mayor, because of what I represented as the police chief,” Kunkle said.
During his tenure as chief, Kunkle was faced with requests from the community to convert the Police Department’s LGBT liaison officer assignment from part time to full time.
Kunkle was initially reluctant to make the change because he said he didn’t believe there was enough work for the officer to do, but he eventually agreed to the full-time assignment.
“I’ve always felt that … having a full time police officer in the community was important as long as there was enough work to keep the person busy,” he said.
Kunkle also frequently dealt with questions as chief about violent crime in an area near the Cedar Springs strip, which at one point ranked as high as No. 3 among the city’s worst hotspots.
But Kunkle said it’s been the very identification of those hotspots that helped lead to a 36 percent reduction in violent crime citywide over the last seven years. The Cedar Spring area has since fallen to No. 7 on the list.
“One reason crime reduction occurred is that we as a department got much better about targeting the highest crime areas,” he said.
Kunkle said he would appoint openly LGBT people to boards and commissions, and supports the expansion of diversity training.
Kunkle also said he would defend the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance and DP benefits program if they came under attack from the Legislature, council members or some other outside force.
He expressed support for the review by Hunt and Medrano of the city’s handling of nondiscrimination complaints, but he said he’s unsure about requiring DP benefits for contractors.
“I don’t know that the city of Dallas should require it, but I think the fact that the city suggests it would be the appropriate thing to do,” Kunkle said. “I’m not opposed to it, either. I just don’t know legally what would be the impact of doing it, the consequences. I think on its face it seems like a good idea.”
Unlike Natinsky or Rawlings, Kunkle said he firmly supports the formation of an LGBT human relations commission.
“I think the funding would be minimal,” he said. “I think the benefits could be great.”
Kunkle said he believes council-appointed commissions could also benefit other “groups that tend to be underrepresented or may be forgotten.”
He said an LGBT commission could help deal with issues like DP benefits for city contractors. A few years ago, the council signed a contract with Omni Hotels to operate the city-owned convention center hotel, but the company wasn’t asked whether it offers DP benefits until after the fact.
“I don’t know that I would have ever thought of it, but that’s one advantage of having a commission, so that those kinds of issues can have a mechanism to be brought up,” Kunkle said.
Kunkle had stepped down as police chief prior to the Police Department’s controversial raid of a gay bathhouse last October. But he said he would not have signed off on the vice unit’s operation at Club Dallas had he still been chief.
“I don’t think that meets the definition of public lewdness in my mind,” Kunkle said, adding that police have “better things to do.”
“If you have consenting adults engaged in activity, there’s nobody who’s going to walk into that environment who should be offended by what they see,” he said. “It’s not a public place.”
Asked about Leppert’s shift to the right, Kunkle said it’s an example of why he’s the best candidate.
“That’s the reason I think you guys should vote for me, because I’m not going to change,” he said. “I always have been consistent in what I believe in. I’m not going to change depending on which audience I’m in. I’m running as a nontraditional candidate, and it gives me some freedom to talk about and say what I really believe, without worrying about which of my financial supporters I’m going to offend.”
Kunkle said he is a member of a Methodist church but has not been active for the last several years. Asked whether he supports same-sex marriage, Kunkle said: “My beliefs and faith are one of tolerance and respect for people and the choices that they make. If I were confronted with and involved with that issue, that’s the side I would come out on.”
Rawlings, the former CEO of Pizza Hut, acknowledged that he likely is the least known of the three major candidates to the LGBT community in Dallas. But Rawlings said his record in the private sector, as the city’s homeless czar and as chairman of the Convention and Visitors Bureau should make LGBT voters comfortable supporting him.
“I was the chairman of [the CVB] when we started our first GLBT marketing campaign, to market Dallas as a truly cosmopolitan city with all the diversity this town has and offers to other people, and I think being part of that dialogue is extremely important,” Rawlings said.
“While a lot of people don’t know me, my three-and-a-half decades here in Dallas and my business relationships, my teams that I’ve worked with over the years, can pretty much speak to how I’ve lived my life.
“I ran the largest advertising agency in the South, and we had a huge community of GLBT associates and team members.”
Rawlings said as homeless czar, he worked tirelessly on behalf of the city’s most marginalized population.
“This is not a man who doesn’t understand what it means to create dignity for individuals, so I would ask somebody to look at that track record, and say, ‘Is it consistent that this guy’s going to take a left-hand turn from the way he’s treated people his whole life?’”
Rawlings was CEO of Pizza Hut from 1997 until 2003. Pizza Hut is owned by Yum Brands, which scored a 65 out of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index in 2010.
According to HRC, Yum Foods added sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policy in 2004, and began offering DP benefits in 2006.
Joe Bosch, who was HR director at Pizza Hut when Rawlings was CEO, noted that the company is merely a division of Yum Brands. Bosch said although Yum Brands may not have enacted the two policies until after Rawlings left Pizza Hut, “He was definitely a champion of diversity.”
Rawlings’ assistant, Sandy Nelson, said the company where he currently serves as vice chairman, CIC Partners in Dallas, is too small with only 12 employees to have extensive LGBT-related employment policies.
Rawlings, whose high-profile LGBT supporters include Pam Gerber and Larry Pease, said he would be honored to participate in events such as the gay Pride parade and the Black Tie Dinner.
And he said he would not hesitate to appoint openly LGBT people to city boards and commissions. “I go for talent,” he said. “Diversity is not a politically correct term for me. Diversity is the way we’re going to be more competitive.”
Rawlings also said he would support expanding DPD diversity training to Fire-Rescue. He said he wasn’t familiar with the ongoing review of the city’s handling of discrimination complaints, but he added, “If people are being treated badly, we need to get to the bottom of it.”
Rawlings vowed to defend both the nondiscrimination ordinance and DP benefits if they came under attack. But he said he would not support establishing an LGBT commission, because he prefers human relationships and accountability over bureaucracy.
“When I was on the parks board, I really questioned, what are we doing here as a parks board? It didn’t set budget, it didn’t set policy, so I’m a believer in fewer versus more in that regard,” he said. “I’m a believer in getting the job done, as opposed to acting like the job’s getting done.”
Rawlings also said he would be reluctant to require contractors to offer DP benefits, because such an ordinance would amount to playing “the ethics police.”
“I would not be for it, probably, because we’ve got way too many hurdles everybody’s got to jump over to get money into this town,” he said.
Rawlings said he attends First Presbyterian Church and believes discrimination against LGBT people is “one of the worst parts” of Christianity.
He said he had an employee who was beaten to death in an anti-gay hate crime in the 1980s.
“One of our top creative people was killed over on Cedar Springs one night,” he said. “It changed my perspective on things a lot.”
Asked about same-sex marriage, Rawlings said he believes the issue is “divisive’ and shouldn’t be used as “a litmus test.”
“I think it’s one of the most irrelevant issues for the world,” he said. “I think we should get beyond it and let people do what they want to do. Some of my best friends have been married, and I’m pleased that they have been, and so I’m really happy for them. I’ve supported their marriage, but it’s not the mayor’s job to say, ‘We need to do this.’”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 8, 2011.