Texas Democratic candidate one of few to get endorsement from national gay-rights group
In what the organization’s national field director is calling "a special occurrence," the Human Rights Campaign has endorsed Democrat Bill White for governor of Texas.
HRC’s endorsement of White, who faces anti-gay Republican Gov. Rick Perry in the November election, was announced Saturday, March 13 during the DFW Federal Club’s spring luncheon at Brookhaven Country Club, where White also spoke.
Marty Rouse, national field director for the country’s largest gay-rights group, said later that HRC typically backs only one or two gubernatorial candidates per election cycle, if any.
"It’s not unheard of, but I would say it’s a special occurrence," Rouse said of HRC’s endorsement of White, which paves the way for significant financial contributions and volunteer support.
"We feel very confident that Bill White has a good chance of not only running a competitive race, but a winning race," Rouse said. "This is the first time in a long time we’ve had a real hope of having a fair-minded leader leading Texas, and that means so much to so many people, not just the GLBT community."
Cathi Scalise, a member of HRC’s Board of Directors from Dallas, called the endorsement "huge."
"With limited funds, you have to determine priorities, and for that to be a priority, I think says a lot for Texas," Scalise said. "I just think it shows that this race is really important in the national efforts for the GLBT community.
"He’s someone who’s been actively supporting our community for a long time now," Scalise said of White. "To me it’s his track record that speaks for itself."
In addition to the "clear distinction" between White and Perry on LGBT issues, Rouse cited HRC’s large number of members in Texas as a factor behind the endorsement. He also said a victory by White in a conservative state that gets national media attention would "send a signal across the country."
White, who served as Houston mayor for the last six years, is widely viewed as a strong LGBT ally.
White reportedly has been a member of HRC’s Houston Federal Club since 2003. He had a gay brother who passed away several years ago.
White has said he voted against Texas’ 2005 constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, which Perry championed and used to mobilize evangelical voters prior to his re-election campaign in 2006.
White also routinely appeared in Houston’s gay Pride parade as mayor, and he appointed openly LGBT people to key positions in city government.
After being endorsed by HRC, White spent 15 minutes addressing the crowd of about 250 who attended the luncheon.
Apparently reluctant to give ammunition to Perry, White didn’t talk in detail about LGBT policy positions. In fact, he never once used the words "gay" or "lesbian."
But White pledged to seek common ground on issues, to unite Texans from all backgrounds, and to treat everyone with respect.
"I will work hard every day to raise awareness and to change attitudes in our state," White said.
White also acknowledged that Perry may try to use HRC’s endorsement against him.
"There will be people who say, it’s a mixed blessing to have this endorsement in Texas," White said. "Let’s teach them a lesson. Let’s teach them that you don’t mess with HRC."
In a brief interview with Dallas Voice as he walked to a vehicle waiting outside, White was asked whether he would support relationship recognition for same-sex couples.
"I think there ought to be a way that people are able to get some of the benefits in the workplace that they deserve, so that there’s not discrimination in the workplace, but I’m not sure what legal mechanism would allow people to avoid that discrimination that currently occurs for committed couples," he said. "I do not know what the viability of that is, what the legal mechanism would be for obtaining something where we could have … You need some status so those employers who do have partner benefits can have some recognition of the status of those who are eligible for those partner benefits, but I don’t know what the legislative mechanism for that is."
Asked whether he would support a repeal of the 2005 amendment, which may prohibit all forms of relationship recognition in Texas, White said: "My general approach to the legislative issues would be to see what kind of consensus there was within the Legislature, and to try to move the Legislature forward, but not to fight Don Quixote fights in the Legislature, because my focus is going to be to improve public education and higher education, and I just haven’t gotten a good sense of where the Legislature is on that," he said.
Regardless of the amendment, White reiterated his support for domestic partner benefits for state employees.
"I think there ought to be a way to attract and retain good employees to state government," he said. "We’ve got to cost out and see where the health benefit system as a whole exists for the state, but I think private employers have shown it’s a good way to attract and retain employees. We’d have to work with those within the community and those within the Legislature to see what kind of legislative support, because I think that type of change would require some support from the Legislature at appropriate times, but I will make the case that it’s important that we’re able to compete in public entities with private sector firms who have partner benefits, to retain and attract good employees."
Other Democrats, including agriculture commissioner nominee Hank Gilbert and attorney general nominee Barbara Ann Radnofsky, have published policy statements on LGBT issues. But Katy Bacon, a spokeswoman for White’s campaign, seemed to indicate in an e-mail this week that it’s unlikely he’ll do so.
"Bill White is working to build a better future for Texas, a future of opportunity for all Texans, in which each citizen is respected," Bacon said when asked about a policy statement. "To do so, he’s addressing issues affecting all Texans, emphasizing those goals that unite rather than divide Texans. He has discussed LGBT issues and many other issues in a number of forums and has filled out questionnaires of various LGBT groups."
Bacon also was asked what assurances the LGBT community has that White would be an advocate for equality.
"Bill White has always been about results, not rhetoric," Bacon said. "Bill White has a decades-long track record of inclusive leadership, of fighting for a culture of respect and of treating diversity as a strength. Throughout his life, Bill has worked on behalf of civil rights for all groups, including the LGBT community. As state party chair, he recognized the LGBT caucus and gave them a seat on the SDEC [State Democratic Executive Committee]. As a private citizen, he helped lead the effort to oppose a ballot initiative to deprive the Houston City Council of the authority to offer benefits to same-sex partners. While mayor, he worked closely with all groups to appoint the best and brightest people to senior level staff positions, boards and commissions. He chose Sue Lovell, a leader in the local, state and national LGBT communities, to be vice mayor pro tem.
"As governor, Bill White will work with leadership in LGBT community and other communities, to understand legislative priorities and identify actions within the governor’s power that will be effective in moving Texas forward."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 19, 2010.