Out school board member takes on staunch LGBT ally in Fort Worth House race

Posted on 20 Apr 2012 at 12:46am

Carlos Vasquez says education cuts led to run against Lon Burnam, who touts perfect record on gay issues

Vasquez-Burnam

Carlos Vasquez, left, and Lon Burnam

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer

Openly gay Fort Worth school board member Carlos Vasquez is challenging  state Rep. Lon Burnam, a staunch LGBT ally, for the Democratic nomination for House District 90. The area covers most LGBT neighborhoods in Fort Worth.

Election-2012-LogoBurnam has served in the Legislature since 1997. Vasquez was elected to the Fort Worth Independent School District’s Board of Trustees in 2008. He represents District 1, which covers the northwest part of the city, and his term ends in 2013.

“The $5.4 billion cut to education was the deciding factor,” Vasquez said of his decision to enter the House race, adding that he also feels it’s important to have an openly gay member of the Legislature.

Burnam agreed that the Legislature’s slashing of education funding is a disaster for public schools in Texas. And he called the governor’s position on women’s health equally horrible. On LGBT issues, Burnam said he’s always worked closely with Equality Texas, the statewide gay rights organization.
Equality Texas Deputy Executive Director Chuck Smith said, “Lon is one of the strongest allies we have in the Texas House of Representatives.”

Burnam said he understands the priority of the LGBT community to elect openly gay candidates to the Legislature, but feels there are better seats to target.

“It’s in the best interest of the community to elect a 100 percent friend,” he said.

Burnam was a founding member of Tarrant County Stonewall Democrats. During the anti-marriage amendment battle in 2005, he said he not only campaigned against the measure but contributed money.

“Where was Carlos during those battles?” he asked.

After the Rainbow Lounge raid, Burnam said he worked closely with Fort Worth city council members Joel Burns and Kathleen Hicks.

“I was working [Mayor Mike] Moncrief, because he didn’t get it right away,” Burnam said. “By July 4, [Police Chief Jeffrey] Halstead admitted to me he made mistakes. Where was Carlos?”

The Texas Tribune suggested in a recent article that Burnam’s biggest opponent could be Domingo Garcia. Garcia is running for the new Congressional District 33 seat, which overlaps much of House District 90. In a district that is 71 percent Hispanic, Vasquez may be able to ride Garcia’s coattails among Hispanic voters.

Both Burnam and Vasquez downplayed that idea but agreed Vasquez would receive some votes based on ethnicity.

Burnam said he isn’t worried and is polling higher among Hispanics than Vasquez. And Vasquez said he expected votes from the Hispanic community and others who know his work on the school board.

“Most of the community knows me,” Vasquez said.

Vasquez accused Burnam of being a partisan Democrat who can’t get much done.

“Lon’s a good guy, a good Democrat, but he hasn’t been effective,” Vasquez said.

Burnam said he was the only House member to vote against Tom Craddick for speaker in 2003. During Craddick’s term, legislation with Burnam’s name on it didn’t move out of committee.

“You just have to be creative in how you do your advocacy,” Burnam said.

This term, Burnam is co-chair of the House Democratic Campaign Committee. He cited that as an example of how fellow Democrats in the House trust him.

“We’re going to pick up a bunch of seats,” he said.

Vasquez said he has discussed his candidacy with the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, but the group that backs openly LGBT candidates nationwide has made no endorsement in the race.

Denis Dison, vice president of communications for the Victory Fund, said it’s always hard to dislodge an incumbent.

“Most people serious about getting into public office wait for an opportunity,” Dison said.

In considering potential endorsements, the Victory Fund looks at whether there’s a path to victory, which can involve local party politics, scandals or other opportunities.

He pointed out that of more than 7,000 state legislators across the country, only about 90 are LGBT. Texas is one of 18 states that lack an openly LGBT legislator.

“We don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘We’ll let our allies do the work for us,’” Dison said, noting that the group has backed LGBT candidates against incumbents who are strong allies. “It’s about the [gay] candidate, not the incumbent.”

Vasquez is one of two gay candidates who are taking on staunch LGBT allies in Texas House races this year, as activist Ray Hill challenges incumbent Rep. Garnet Coleman in Houston.

“If we don’t have one of our own fighting for us, no one will bring our issues to the forefront,” Vasquez said.

“We need a state representative who will represent all of us. We need a gay legislator.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 20, 2012.

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