Turnout sparse at candidate forum

Posted on 09 Apr 2009 at 6:46pm
By John Wright News Editor

9 candidates attend DGLA forum; District 1 candidate Benchot acknowledges he is gay



District 12 Councilman Ron Natinsky addresses the small crowd at the DGLA?Ccandidate forum on Monday, April 6. Natinsky, who is unopposed in his re-election bid, was one of nine candidates to attend the event. JOHN WRIGHT/Dallas Voice

An LGBT community forum for Dallas City Council candidates drew only about 25 people on Monday, April 6, and nine of those in attendance at the Cathedral of Hope were candidates.

Patti Fink, president of the Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance, which hosted the forum, blamed the low turnout on the group’s failure to adequately publicize the event as well as the fact that voters are notoriously apathetic when it comes to municipal elections.

"We’re not terribly surprised," Fink said, adding that a DGLA candidate forum during the 2007 municipal elections saw a similar turnout. "This is typical, not just for the GLBT community, but for the electorate at large."

This year’s forum drew nine of the 41 candidates for 14 City Council seats in May 9 elections, including four from District 1, where Mayor Pro Tem Dr. Elba Garcia is stepping down due to term limits.

District 1 candidates who attended the forum were Daniel Benchot, Mark Gonzales, Delia Jasso and Jesus Tovar. Also attending the forum were, from District 2, incumbent Pauline Medrano and challenger Billy MacLeod; from District 3, incumbent Dave Neumann and challenger Casey Thomas; and from District 12, incumbent Ron Natinsky.

Benchot is the only known openly LGBT candidate running for City Council this year. Fink said she wasn’t aware of Benchot’s sexual orientation until he completed a questionnaire as part of DGLA’s endorsement screening process prior to the forum.

"I’d never met him before at all," Fink said. "I’m glad to see somebody’s running."
There hasn’t been an openly LGBT member of the Dallas City Council since Ed Oakley stepped down to run for mayor in 2007. Prior to that, there was at least one openly LGBT member of the council for 14 consecutive years.

Benchot, a 42-year-old Dallas native who works in sales and marketing at a security company, said that until now, he hasn’t been touting the fact that he’s gay on the campaign trail. He also said he hasn’t been heavily involved in the LGBT community over the years.

But he vowed during the forum that if elected, "I will be an advocate for the gay and lesbian community because that is my community."

Benchot  also acknowledged the difficulty of being a white candidate in a predominantly Latino district.

District 1 isn’t heavily gay, but Garcia has nonetheless been a strong advocate on LGBT issues. In response to a question from Fink about the importance of replacing Garcia with an ally, the other three candidates from District 1 who attended the forum also pledged their support.

Jasso, a member of the city’s Parks and Recreation board for the last seven years, said she’s worked alongside openly gay former council members including Oakley, John Loza, Craig McDaniel and Chris Luna, some of whom are actively supporting her. Jasso also said she participated in the city’s gay Pride parade last year.

"I’ve never felt so much love as when I walked in that parade," Jasso said during the forum. "Advocacy to me means that I will take the lead whenever there’s an issue that needs help from the gay and lesbian community."

In District 2, which includes much of Oak Lawn, Medrano said she’s appointed seven openly LGBT people to city boards and commissions during her two terms on the council. Medrano also touted a reduction in crime of more than 18 percent in her district from 2007 to 2008.

She said she’s worked closely with the Cedar Springs Merchants Association on issues including crime and economic development.

In District 3, which includes heavily gay areas in Oak Cliff, Neumann said he helped expand diversity training on sexual orientation at Dallas Fire-Rescue during his first term on the council.

Neumann replaced Oakley after defeating another openly gay candidate, Joseph Hernandez, in a runoff two years ago. Neumman said he’s also attended numerous LGBT events, including the Pride parade, the Black Tie Dinner, the GLBT Chamber of Commerce’s anniversary dinner and a meeting of the DFW Federal Club.
"Those are tangible commitments that I’ve been involved with," he said.

Natinsky, who’s running unopposed in District 12, said although he’s from North Dallas, he aims to represent the whole city.

"The fact that I’m here tonight should send a message to you," Natinsky said.
Fink said she was disappointed that no candidates vying for four council seats traditionally held by African-Americans attended the forum. 

"That’s a huge area of work we as a community have going forward," she said.
Also conspicuously absent from the forum were Ann Margolin and Brint Ryan, who are vying to replace term-limited District 12 Councilman Mitchell Rasansky.

Fink said some candidates RSVP’d for the forum but didn’t show up, including Angela Hunt, an incumbent who’s running unopposed in District 14 and reportedly was ill.

Also, some candidates who didn’t attend the forum may have participated in private interviews with DGLA’s political action committee.

The private interviews, along with responses to the written questionnaires, are used as the formal basis for DGLA’s endorsements, which are expected to be released next week, according to Fink.

Fink said the private interviews and questionnaires attempted to gauge candidates’ support for various DGLA initiatives, such as creating an affinity group for LGBT city employees, converting from part time to full time the position of community liaison police officer, and addressing possible inequities related to emergency/bereavement leave in the city’s domestic partner benefits policy.

E-mail wright@dallasvoice.com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 10, 2009.

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