Openly gay candidate for Arlington City Council says ‘basic issues’ key in 5-way race

Posted on 14 Apr 2011 at 4:30pm
Chris Hightower

Chris Hightower says sexual orientation hasn’t been a significant issue so far

TAMMYE NASH | Senior Editor
nash@dallasvoice.com

ARLINGTON — When Chris Hightower first started talking to family and friends about running for the District 5 seat on the Arlington City Council, the response he got, he said this week, was, “It’s time.”

“That just turned out to be the theme I was getting from everyone: ‘It’s time,’” Hightower said.

Hightower, who grew up in District 5, is the son of Paula Hightower Pierson, who represented District 5 on the City Council from 1989 to 1997, and then served in the Texas House of Representatives from 2008 to 2010.

If he wins the District 5 seat, Hightower will become the first openly gay person on the Arlington council.

Thanks to his mother’s life in government and the civic service arena, Hightower said, “I have always had civic service in my blood. I’ve thought about running for public office before, but this time, I just decided to do it. I’m not getting any younger, and I decided it was time to step up. Like everyone said to me, it’s time.

“We are a very close family, and when one person in the family is doing something, the whole family is there to support them. I would not have run for the council while my mother was still in the House. I wouldn’t have wanted to take away from her efforts. But since she lost re-election last year, I decided the time was right to run for the council. And she supports me completely,” Hightower said.

Hightower is one of four candidates challenging eight-year incumbent Lana Wolff for the District 5 seat. Also on the ballot with Hightower and Wolff are Terry Meza, Christopher McCain and Julie M. Douglas.

With five people in the race, most poll watchers expect a runoff. Apparently Wolff is among them, Hightower said, noting that the incumbent has, so far, done little campaigning.

“She expects there will be a runoff and that she will be in it, and she is saving her efforts for the runoff,” he said. “But my plan is to win outright in the general election, to avoid a runoff altogether.”

And if campaign contributions are any indication, Hightower is on his way. He said this week he expects his campaign contributions so far to significantly exceed the other candidates’ when financial statements are reported to the City Secretary’s Office this week.

So far, Hightower said, only only one person — not one of the candidates — has tried to make Hightower’s sexual orientation an issue in the race. But Hightower said he doesn’t believe the gay-baiting tactics have gotten much traction.

However, Hightower added, if he does find himself facing Wolff in a runoff, he expects the incumbent to try and make his sexual orientation a campaign issue. But he doesn’t think it will hold much sway over voters then, either.

“There are only 1,800 registered voters in District 5. This is a small, intimate community with a small town mentality. It’s not about what you are, but who you are and do people know you,” Hightower said. “The people in this district know me. When I am out walking the district, I am door-knocking my old teachers, my neighbors. I ran into my old elementary school principal. They know me; they know my family.”

When it comes to the issue of his sexual orientation, Hightower seems to be taking a page out of the playbook of the national Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund — which has endorsed him in the race — and is employing a strategy that paid off for other groundbreaking LGBT candidates in Texas, like Fort Worth Councilman Joel Burns and Houston Mayor Annise Parker.

Although he has never tried to keep his sexual orientation secret, Hightower hasn’t let it become the focus of his campaign, either, focusing instead on what he sees as the basic, core issues that affect all Arlington citizens.

“I have been out my whole life. But is that an issue in this race? I shouldn’t think so,” Hightower said. “This campaign is about city issues, about the streets that need repairs, public safety issues. It’s not about personal things. That’s how I see it, and that’s how I think the voters see it, too.

“I’m not running for City Council with a gay agenda of some kind. I am running on the issues all the citizens care about,” he said.

For the past 10 years in Arlington, “it’s been all about the Cowboys and building the stadium here. That’s not a bad thing. That stadium and the Cowboys and the Super Bowl this year have done great things for our city,” Hightower said. “But now it’s time to get back to the basics. Now it’s time to focusing on fixing the streets, on code enforcement, on public safety.

“When those things are in place, people want to live here and businesses want to move here. That’s where we will get the development we need to continue to grow.”

Hightower said he sees the University of Texas at Arlington as the city’s greatest resource, and that “finding a way to engage those students in our city and make them want to stay here and open businesses and raise their families” will be integral to Arlington’s future.

“UT-A has a great engineering program, a great nursing program, a great social work program. It has many, many fantastic programs. But what’s key is the engineering programs, the technology programs. With those, you’re talking about jobs, high-paying jobs. That’s the economic engine that will really drive Arlington into the future,” he said.

Hightower said that the success of the American League Champion Texas Rangers baseball team, the new Cowboys Stadium and this year’s Super Bowl has meant that Arlington has been “fairly lucky” through the recent recession, and so is not facing the severe budget crunch other area cities now face.

Still, he added, the city has to beginning working to “get [pensions and benefits] under control” by honoring existing contracts while at the same time “doing a better job of negotiating new contracts on the front end.”

The city also has to “crank it up a notch and do a better job” of attracting new businesses and industries to the city, Hightower said. “Right now, the council’s concept is writing checks to one business at a time, to try and get them to move here. We need a comprehensive approach that makes the city more attractive to all kinds of new businesses.”

Hightower also acknowledged that the Arlington council will eventually have to address what he called the “hotly-contested” issue of mass transit.

“People don’t have an answer yet, but we do all understand that we don’t live in a microcosm. You may live in Arlington, but work in Dallas or Fort Worth, and you need to have a way to get there,” he said. “We have to have some sort of regional transit system, and not just a municipal system.”

Hightower said that while various city programs that receive federal funds already include nondiscrimination policies that include LGBT protections, there is not citywide ordinance protecting LGBTs from discrimination.

While such an ordinance is not a No. 1 priority for him at this time, Hightower said he believes it will happen eventually.

“I do believe that the people of Arlington of fair-minded people, overall, who would frown on any kind of discrimination. And I believe that kind of [nondiscrimination] ordinance will be a natural fit here,” he said.

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