It’s hard to say which is more surprising — the fact that Austin has never had an openly gay councilmember, or the fact that Plano may be about to get one.
Austin and Plano, the fourth-largest and ninth-largest cities in Texas, respectively, are like polar opposites on the state’s political spectrum. But voters in both will have a chance to make history in municipal elections Saturday, May 10.
In staunchly conservative Plano, 23-year-old Justin Nichols is vying to become the first-ever openly gay city councilmember. And in ultraprogressive Austin, the same is true for 42-year-old Randi Shade.
Both Nichols and Shade have been endorsed by the Washington, D.C.-based Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. The Victory Fund, a political action committee that backs openly LGBT candidates nationwide, has endorsed more in Texas this year (six) than in any other state but California (11). The other four Victory Fund-endorsed Texas candidates are on November ballots.
"Texas has been really kind of amazing," said Denis Dison, a spokesman for The Victory Fund. "It has been a real success story in terms of getting people used to the idea that people from our community can run."
Meanwhile, in Carrollton, voters will decide Saturday whether to re-elect gay-friendly Mayor Becky Miller, whose challenger has dredged up the issue of Miller’s appearance in Dallas’ 2006 gay Pride parade. Miller’s re-election chances took a blow this week when The Dallas Morning News published an article questioning statements she’s made about her past, including that she had a brotherwho was killed in Vietnam. In the article, Miller stood by the statements.
Controversy in Collin County
After Dallas Voice published an article about Nichols’ candidacy for City Council in March, his job as Collin County’s Teen Court coordinator was threatened. County Commissioner Jerry Hoagland proposed firing Nichols, who’s been Teen Court coordinator since 2006, for being gay. The Dallas Voice article also prompted circulation of an anonymous e-mail suggesting that Nichols, who supervises hundreds of teen volunteers, is unfit to work with youth due to his sexual orientation.
Hoagland, who hasn’t commented publicly on the matter, later backed off the proposal to fire Nichols amid intense media scrutiny. And Nichols said he’s since received a favorable performance review from the county.
This week, Nichols said he’s unsure whether his sexual orientation will ultimately hurt him in his race against Pat Miner for the Place 1 City Council seat, which is being vacated by incumbent Step Stehel due to term limits. But Nichols said he’s "very confident" about his chances and believes the controversy has actually helped in some ways.
"It’s given me the opportunity to talk about the issues with Plano voters because they’re paying more attention," he said.
In response to the controversy, representatives from the Collin County Gay and Lesbian Alliance spoke at two county commission meetings and urged the body to enact an anti-discrimination ordinance protecting LGBT employees. Nichols said he would support such a measure at both the county and city level.
"I look forward to them making that same presentation to the City Council when I’m sitting there," he said.
Morris Garcia, president of the 5-year-old CCGLA, said he believes the overall impact of the controversy has been positive. Despite its reputation, Plano recently was named one of the top five emerging cities for gays and lesbians by The Advocate, a national LGBT magazine.
CCGLA doesn’t make endorsements, but Garcia has said he personally supports Nichols.
"I think we’ve raised the level of awareness, and people are becoming educated through this," Garcia said. "I still think he has a good chance to win, and I think intelligent people will do the smart thing. … It would be a very big step for Collin County."
Dallas native seeks Austin seat
Voters in Austin elected the only openly gay person ever to serve in the Texas Legislature, Rep. Glen Maxey. The city’s voters also recently helped elect Rosemary Lehmberg, an out lesbian, as the next Travis County district attorney. Lehmberg won the Democratic Primary, and there is no Republican on the November ballot.
Shade, a Dallas native who attended J.J. Pearce High School, is challenging incumbent Jennifer Kim for the Place 3 seat on the City Council. Shade said Austin had gay city councilmembers in the 1970s, but they were closeted.
"I think it’s important when people are firsts," she said. "It looks like I’ve got a good chance to win."
A graduate of the University of Texas and Harvard Business School, Shade directed the Americorps volunteer program for Govs. Ann Richards and George W. Bush. She later started an Internet company selling gift cards for charitable contributions.
For the last two years, Shade said she’s been a stay-at-home mom. She and her partner of six years, an attorney who’s on the national board of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, have a 2-year-old son.
Shade said she volunteers for Equality Texas and Atticus Circle, two LGBT equality groups. In addition to the Victory Fund, she’s been endorsed by Stonewall Democrats of Travis County and the Austin Lesbian and Gay Political Caucus.
"We’re certainly feeling bolstered and supported and very much appreciated by the LGBT community," Shade said.
Carrollton activist fears ‘setback’
Carrollton has been a major battleground for LGBT equality over the last few years.
Mayor Miller’s appearance in the Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade in 2006 led to a petition signed by 75 residents that was submitted to the City Council last year. The petition demanded that city officials refrain from such appearances in the future.
About 50 LGBT residents and supporters showed up at City Hall to express their opposition to the petition, which was never acted on by the council.
Miller’s challenger in the May 10 election, former City Councilman Ron Branson, has criticized the mayor’s appearance in the parade on his campaign Web site, www.runwithron.net.
"I guess I could participate in a controversial parade, but I would never plaster ‘Carrollton Mayor’ on the side of my vehicle," Branson’s Web site states under a section titled, "Why Run for Mayor?"
Branson told Dallas Voice he believes city officials should be free to participate in any parade they want as individuals, but not as representatives of Carrollton.
Branson also said homosexuality is "just not a lifestyle I endorse."
Miller was asked to appear in the parade by friend and supporter Bob McCranie, an openly gay Carrollton real estate agent. McCranie started the Carrollton Project, an LGBT equality group, in September 2006 after his sexual orientation became a contentious issue in municipal elections.
McCranie said he was kicked off the campaign of two City Council candidates in 2006 for being gay.
When another candidate McCranie supported won, the loser criticized his opponent in an e-mail for accepting help from "gay Bob" and "the big sissy."
In March, Miller and McCranie both said they felt Branson had little chance of defeating her. Branson, who left the council in for health reasons in 2006, isn’t accepting campaign contributions, and he didn’t initially attract much support for his mayoral bid.
But this week — even before The Morning News published the article Wednesday, May 7 questioning Miller’s statements about her past — McCranie said he was worried.
"I really think it could be up in the air," McCranie said. "It would be a remarkable setback, and we’re not at a point in our community where we can take a setback."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 9, 2008.