Rewriting history

Recently outed State Board of Education member George Clayton vies to become the first candidate elected in Texas as an openly gay Republican

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UNIQUELY QUALIFIED | Clayton, shown at a board meeting last year, is the only educator in the race. He serves as special projects coordinator at Thomas Jefferson High School in Dallas. (Associated Press)

JOHN WRIGHT  |  Senior Editor

There was a moment when George Clayton considered throwing in the towel.

It was last November and Clayton, a first-term Republican member of Texas’ State Board of Education from Richardson, had become the subject of an apparent whisper campaign concerning his sexual orientation.

After the 62-year-old Clayton put an end to the rumors once and for all by publicly acknowledging he’s gay, commenters on news sites predicted he wouldn’t stand a chance of getting re-elected in District 12, which includes all of Collin County, one of the most conservative urban areas in the nation.

And Clayton was starting to believe it.

“There was a moment after this broke that I thought well, I’m not going to pull out, but maybe I’ll just suspend the campaign,” Clayton told Dallas Voice in an exclusive interview last week.

Clayton called a meeting with his brain trust, which includes his campaign manager and partner of 34 years, Jim Southworth, as well as his sister, Dallas County District Judge Teresa Hawthorne.

“They were against me pulling out altogether,” Clayton recalled. “So I said OK, let’s move on with this. We’ll go down the road, and if it gets really, really rough, then we’ll meet again, but it hasn’t.”

In fact, Clayton said his sexual orientation hasn’t come up at all on the campaign trail since then, even during the many candidate forums he’s attended in the district.

Clayton, believed to be the first openly gay Republican officeholder in Texas’ history, said he realizes his sexual orientation may hurt him among some primary voters on May 29 — when he faces three GOP challengers. But he said he’s also heard from plenty of Republicans in the district — which has a population of 1.7 million and also includes portions of northern Dallas County — who are totally supportive.

“It’s amazing, and it has been encouraging, because I didn’t want to spend the rest of the campaign having that discussion, and that’s where it would have gone if I hadn’t said anything,” Clayton said. “What they were hoping is that I would try to cover it up, Nixon-ize the damn thing, or deny it, lie about it, stonewall, circumvent it in some way.

“All that would do is create more problems for me, and I’ve got plenty of those already,” he added. “And if it killed off the campaign completely, and there was always that risk, then it killed it off. But I never thought that it would, and it hasn’t.”

Deep political roots

Clayton said he and Southworth first devised their strategy for dealing with potential rumors about his sexual orientation — by responding honestly and forcefully — when he ran for City Council in Tampa, Fla., in 1987.

“We had had this discussion as far back as Tampa, that when somebody comes up and attempts to slap me down, the best thing I can do is slap back harder than they have,” he said.

Clayton wouldn’t need the strategy in the 1987 race. Although the issue didn’t come up, he lost anyway.

“I had no business on that council,” he said. “I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.”

Regardless of his defeat in that first campaign, Clayton had always seemed destined to run for public office.

As a student at Garland High School, he was elected president of his sophomore, junior and senior classes.

In 1968, at age 19, Clayton became the youngest delegate to the Democratic National Convention, representing Dallas.

“The Democratic Party was somewhat different in those days,” Clayton said. “When George McGovern and Jane Fonda took control of the party, it didn’t fit me anymore. I switched to the Republican Party long before the Reagan revolution, when it became very fashionable to do that.”

Clayton said he knew he was gay from a very young age, and although he never hid it, he “didn’t get on the rooftop and announce it either.”

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34 YEARS AND COUNTING  | Clayton, right, and his partner, Jim Southworth, met at Throckmorton Mining Co. in 1978. Southworth also serves as Clayton’s campaign manager. (John Wright/Dallas Voice)

He and Southworth met in 1978 at Throckmorton Mining Co., which was the first gay bar in the Cedar Springs area — on a Tuesday night.

“I never went out on a weeknight,” Clayton recalled. “He walked in, and we started talking, and we’ve been talking ever since. One day we’re going to get it settled.”

A year later, the couple moved to Florida, where Clayton earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of South Florida.

He became heavily involved in the Hillsborough County Republican Party in Tampa, serving on the Executive Committee and chairing many fundraisers. Although Clayton and Southworth regularly attended party functions together, there was never an uproar.

“I just went about my business like everyone else did,” Clayton said. “I thought I was entitled to. I still do.”

After the couple moved back to Dallas in 1999, Clayton decided to leave a career in real estate to become a teacher at North Dallas High School.

“It was fairly obvious from the time I walked into a building that something serious had happened from the time I left public school,” Clayton said.

“The primary thing that had happened was that management of education had been wrestled from teachers and handed to politicians in Austin, Texas — and you talk about mismanaging something …”

Clayton spent 12 years at North Dallas, where he served as English department chair and academic coordinator, before recently being named special projects coordinator at Thomas Jefferson High School. Among other things, Clayton said he now helps prepare teachers for changes in testing requirements.

Officials in Austin, Clayton said, have created an enormous “testing industry” that has “taken over” public education in Texas.

“It’s marginalized the teachers, but in some cases it’s almost made the teacher obsolete,” he said. “The teacher is now a testing coordinator, a testing facilitator, and that’s when I looked around and said, ‘Where do I go?’ The first thought is, get in politics.”

As a district employee, Clayton was barred from running for DISD’s Board of Trustees. So he turned his attention to the State Board of Education, which writes K-12 curriculum for Texas schools.

Shocking upset

Clayton quickly discovered that his SBOE representative in District 12, Geraldine “Tincy” Miller, had never been an educator. Miller had served on the SBOE for 26 years without opposition.

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OUT FOR REVENGE | Geraldine ‘Tincy’ Miller, shown at a board meeeting in 2008, served for 26 years with no opposition. After losing to Clayton in 2010, the 74-year-old Miller reportedly plans to spend more than $50,000 of her own money this year in her bid to win back the seat. (Associated Press)

Now 74, Miller is married to Vance Miller, the son of late Dallas real estate mogul Henry S. Miller Jr.

Clayton said Ms. Miller had a sense of entitlement about the SBOE seat, acting as though she owned it.

“She didn’t take me seriously,” he said.

It was a combination of Miller’s complacency and his strong grassroots campaign, Clayton said, that propelled him to a shocking upset in the 2010 primary. His sexual orientation never came up, and he defeated Miller by a margin of 3,000 votes, or 52 percent to 48 percent.

“I had so many teachers out working for me, and many of them Democrats,” Clayton said. “They saw a need for an educator on the board, especially from this huge urban area.

“She’s never worked in a public school system,” he said of Miller. “She’s never had to. She’s never lived on $45,000 a year. She’s never had to. … I’m not begrudging her her money — I’d like to have some myself — but I do resent a multimillionaire thinking she can represent teachers who are making $45,000 a year and are constantly being threatened with their jobs.”

Clayton said his victory devastated Miller, who didn’t respond to a request to be interviewed for this story.

“I’m told she practically went catatonic,” he said of her reaction on election night.

Two years later, Clayton said Miller has set out to win back her seat at all costs, vowing to spend more than $50,000 of her own money on the race.

Two other Republican candidates are also challenging Clayton — Gail Spurlock and Pam Little.

Lois Parrot is unopposed in the Democratic Primary, but the district is heavily Republican, and the GOP nominee is all but certain to win the seat.

Clayton estimated his three GOP challengers will spend a combined total of $100,000, while he expects to raise less than $10,000.

“That’s two and a half teachers’ salaries for a government position that pays nothing,” he said. “I have to ask myself just what it is I’ve done wrong.”

Whisper campaign

Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, a progressive group that monitors the SBOE, said unlike in the years leading up to Clayton’s election— when the board drew national attention for its battles over science and U.S. history — there haven’t been many controversial votes in his 16 months on the board.

Clayton has consistently been a “swing” or moderate Republican vote, Quinn said. The SBOE is currently made up of 11 Republicans — six of whom are hard-right social conservatives who vote as a bloc — and four Democrats.

“He takes his job seriously as a representative for the people in his district,” Quinn said. “George Clayton’s votes have generally been with the five traditional conservatives.”

Quinn said in 2010, District 12 was “the last race we were looking at,” as TFN simply assumed Miller would win. Although the group doesn’t endorse in primaries, Quinn condemned the gay-baiting tactics used against Clayton.

“Quite obviously whether or not he’s gay makes no difference at all in how he does his job as a State Board of Education member, and it’s appalling that right-wing groups up there would think that this is an appropriate thing to do, to smear somebody in such a way, as if being gay in the first place is something to be ashamed of,” Quinn said.

Rumors about Clayton’s sexual orientation first surfaced on blogs as early as October 2010, but they didn’t gain traction until late last year, when the president of the Golden Corridor Republican Women, Susan Fletcher, sent an email to board members reporting on an interview she’d done with Miller.

The GCRW has members in Collin, Dallas and Denton counties, and Fletcher’s interview with Miller focused on hot-button issues including evolution and abstinence-only education. At the bottom of her email to board members, Fletcher wrote of Clayton: “What are his living arrangements in Richardson? With whom does he live? It’s not appropriate to comment further — but this needs to be investigated.”

In Clayton’s response sent to media outlets confirming that he’s gay, he alleged that in addition to the GCRW, Miller herself was behind the whisper campaign. He now says he has no concrete proof of that, but was basing it on the fact that Miller was a party to the interview with Fletcher.

“Anything like that has to start somewhere, but I steer clear of that nonsense,” Clayton said. “I just go out and talk about education. Maybe Tincy didn’t instigate it, but she planned to take advantage of it. I was not going to allow that to happen. I was not going to give her any room to wiggle.”

Fletcher, meanwhile, claims her comments about Clayton were taken out of context. Fletcher told Dallas Voice her suggestion that Clayton needed to be investigated was related to his “position on sex education in the classroom and whether or not his personal life indicated there may be an agenda.”

“Because it was a private e-mail, an explanation of what needed to be investigated was not necessary,” Fletcher wrote in an email last week. “BOE candidates should expect these kinds of questions regarding their educational philosophy — as one’s personal life/world view frequently influence[s] the policy decisions they make. As a constituent of District 12, I am advocating for an abstinence only curriculum when it comes to sex education. I do not want the school teaching about heterosexual or homosexual topics, as that opens the door for an unhealthy lifestyle.”

Donna Garner, a socially conservative activist from Waco who’s been involved in SBOE races, issued a statement withdrawing her endorsement of Clayton after learning he was gay.

“If Clayton is indeed a homosexual, then we as voters must be concerned about re-electing him to the SBOE since the Board will soon begin the process of writing and adopting Health curriculum requirements for all Texas public school students,” Garner said in the November statement.
Contacted last week, Garner told Dallas Voice she had “nothing more to say on this issue after having made my initial statement.”

“Gail Spurlock is the candidate we are supporting because she is an authentic conservative and holds our same traditional values,” Garner said in an email.

“When I say ‘we,’ I mean those people across Texas who believe that schools should teach knowledge-based academic skills, largely objectively tested, instead of making the public schools a place for social engineering,” she added.

Spurlock’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for an interview. Little, meanwhile, said she would have to “respectfully decline” an interview with Dallas Voice.

Running on his record

Clayton said Spurlock, who’s running on an ultraconservative tea party platform, doesn’t even have a college degree, while Little currently works as a clerk at a fence company.

“If I’m more qualified, it’s because I know more about curriculum education,” Clayton said. “It really disturbs me to know that one of these women, gracious as they are, will go on that board, but it could happen.”

At candidate forums, Clayton said his challengers typically begin by declaring that they’re the only “real Republican” or “true conservative” in the race, before continuing the narrative throughout their remarks.

Clayton, meanwhile, focuses on education, and unlike the others, he’s able to provide real-world examples based on his experience.

“That’s why at the end of these meetings, I always come away feeling a little better,” Clayton said. “They’re relying on their political agenda to see them through, which tells me that if they get on the board, it’s their political agenda that’s going to be their priority on the board.”

Even though Clayton’s sexual orientation hasn’t come up at the candidate forums, he realizes people may be discussing it privately. But he said he has no way of knowing that, and even if he did, there isn’t much he could do.

“I’m going to have to ride this thing through,” he said. “I’m going to rely on the good hearts and the intellect of the voters in my precincts, and Collin County especially, and rely on their intelligence to know the difference between a qualified person to be on the board, and people who have political ambitions and political agendas.

“Do I think it will hurt me? The answer is I’m sure it will among some voters, and maybe some voters who voted for me last time up in Collin County,” Clayton said. “But do I think I still have a chance? I think so.”

TFN’s Quinn said Clayton’s “going to have to be tough” and focus on his record, as well as what he wants to accomplish on the board going forward.

Quinn added he has no doubt the whisper campaign against Clayton is continuing.

“There may not be real public things said or done, but I can guarantee you that’s going on behind the scenes,” Quinn said. “One would hope we’ve reached the point in our society that people can run for office and be judged on their positions on the issues and not their sexual orientation. The unfortunate thing is, the Republican Party in Texas is extremely homophobic.”

Denis Dison, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, said the problem isn’t necessarily confined to Texas.

Of the 530 openly LGBT officials the Victory Fund has identified nationwide, just 20 are members of the GOP.

“Republicans are a fraction of the out officials in the country, which is something we’d like to see change,” Dison said. “Even though you have plenty of people working in politics who are Republican and gay, the idea that they would be out about that is an even newer phenomenon in the GOP than in the Democratic Party.”

Since being outed, Clayton has spoken at a meeting of the gay group Log Cabin Republicans, which also held a fundraiser for him at his home. But he’s declined to seek the endorsement of the Victory Fund, saying he didn’t want to run as “the gay candidate.”

“True equality to me comes without having to precede your name with a label,” he said.

At the same time, Clayton acknowledged that for him and Southworth, his status as Texas’ first out GOP officeholder is a source of pride.

“That’s not lost on us,” he said, adding that if he’s re-elected, the significance will only grow. “Something else that’s not lost on us is, if I win this election, it’s going to bring that up even more, I know it will, at which point because I have come out, it frees me up a little bit to be more frank and above board, and I will be, and I promise you that.

“But I’ve got to win the damned election,” he said. “If I lose the election, it’s going to be, ‘I told you so.’”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 4, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas