Openly gay candidate runs for chair of Denton County Democratic Party

John McClelland serves on water board, founded chapters of Drinking Liberally and Stonewall Democrats

mcclelland.john

IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED | John McClelland lost races for Dallas City Council and Texas House before winning a seat on the local water board. Now he’s running for Denton County Democratic Party chair.

DANIEL VILLARREAL  |  Contributing Writer
editor@dallasvoice.com

DENTON — When he got elected to the district board of the Denton County Fresh Water Supply in March 2010, John McClelland says he became the first openly gay elected official in the county’s history.

This year he’s running for chair of the county’s Democratic Party with the hopes of finally turning Denton — and possibly the whole Lone Star State — blue.

And it all started with a drink.

When President George W. Bush got re-elected in 2004, McClelland consoled himself with the thought that things in the U.S. couldn’t really get much worse. Then in 2005, they did.

The state’s voters passed Proposition 2, an amendment banning both same-sex marriage and civil unions in the Texas Constitution.

McClelland had identified as a Republican during his college days, but gradually came to feel like he couldn’t be gay in the GOP.

He spent time making phone calls, marching on the Capitol and organizing voters against Prop 2. But in the end it still passed with 76 percent of the vote. And by the time it was all over, all McClelland wanted was a drink.

He’d read about Drinking Liberally, a group of New York progressives dedicated to discussing politics over drinks, so he decided to start his own

Addison chapter. He placed an ad on Craigslist and seven people showed up, mostly wondering why he’d even bothered organizing a progressive meeting in such a conservative state.

“Most of the people just wanted a place to sit down, talk and air their grievances, kinda like

Festivus [the made-up holiday celebrated on TV’s Seinfeld], just without the pole and the wrestling match,” he said.

But as the meet-ups continued, McClelland felt he couldn’t just sit around without doing something to make the world a better place. So in 2007, he decided to run against Ron Natinsky for the Dallas City Council District 12 seat.

Natinsky got 4,452 votes. McClelland got 979.

Undeterred, he decided to run against Republican incumbent Myra Crownover in the 2008 race for Texas House District 64.

Crownover received 40,758 votes and McClelland only received 28,195. But considering that Crownover had raised $216,471 for her campaign and McClelland had only raised $28,134, McClelland considered it a worthwhile achievement.

“Being an openly gay, Democrat in a red district in Denton County, that’s pretty good.”

Though he admits that having Barack Obama at the top of the ticket certainly helped, McClelland feels that voters didn’t care that he was a Democrat or gay; they just wanted new leadership and knew that McClelland was qualified.

Though he kept hanging out with the Drinking Liberally crowd, after Obama got elected in 2008, their national outlook became more optimistic.

Instead of complaining about Bush all the time, they complained about the Republicans controlling the state Legislature.

Likewise, McClelland himself had changed. Not only had he run two local races, he had also founded the Stonewall Democrats of Denton County, the national gay political organization’s fifth chapter in North Texas.

“It’s important for LGBT people to have that sort of thing, to be around one another and educate the people that you’re dealing with in the grand scheme of the big tent,” McClelland says. “There are a lot of people who don’t even know what Stonewall means. A lot of people think it refers to Stonewall Jackson, the war general, instead of Stonewall bar.”

He continued acting as his Stonewall chapter’s president after he got elected to the district board of the Denton County Fresh Water Supply in March 2010. But after three years in the office, he has stepped down and refocused his efforts on becoming Denton County Democratic Party chair.

Typically, a county Democratic Party chair supports Democratic campaigns by working closely with candidates, conducting primary elections and helping precinct chairs get out the vote.

But McClelland thinks that the Denton County Democratic Party can do a lot more to help make this happen. As chair, he would train precinct chairs on how to use voter databases to contact voters and host events, fundraise through local donors who normally give to the Democratic

National Committee but not to their local party (“the money doesn’t trickle down,” he says) and prepare future candidates and party organizers through a county program called “Project Farm Team.”

Right now he has 2,000 hangers sitting on his floor just waiting to grace the doors of potential voters.

“I want to get Democrats elected, that’s the main reason I’m doing this, that’s the goal,” McClelland said. “Without Denton or Collin county, it’s gonna be a pretty tough spot getting a Democrat elected, like a governor or a U.S. Senator. Getting Denton County to turn blue is one of the keys to getting the entire state to turn blue.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 10, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas