Official: Evangelicals using issue in effort to take over Collin County
PLANO — An openly gay City Council candidate is being used like a pawn in an effort by right-wing conservatives to seize control of the Collin County Commission.
This is according to County Commissioner Phyllis Cole, who faces an April 8 runoff against Matt Shaheen for the Precinct 2 seat she’s occupied for the last 17 years.
An anonymous e-mail reportedly was sent out last week attacking Cole for her support of Collin County Teen Court coordinator Justin Nichols, 23.
The e-mail stated,"Look who Phyllis appointed to work with your kids," and contained a link to a March 14 Dallas Voice article about Nichols, who’s vying to become the first-ever openly gay member of the City Council in the May 10 municipal election.
"I’m very disturbed about the whole thing, because I like what Justin does, I like Justin," Cole said. "I don’t want to be a commissioner anymore if this is what’s going to be involved, taking a nice young man like Justin and hanging him out to dry."
Both Cole and Nichols said they were unsure how many people received the e-mail. Cole suggested that her opponent, Shaheen, was responsible for the attack, but he denied that.
"Neither my campaign nor I are behind any such e-mail," Shaheen said in a written statement. Shaheen didn’t respond to a request for further comment.
Cole said the e-mail is designed to energize evangelical Christians in the runoff.
She also accused Dallas Voice of exploiting Nichols and taking the bait. She said publishing an article about the e-mail could generate additional media coverage and cost her the election.
"You’re playing right into their hands because what they’re trying to do is create this furor so the crazy far right group gets all in a furor and runs out to vote," Cole said.
According to his campaign Web site, Shaheen is a member of Prestonwood Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Plano that’s one of the largest megachurches in the country.
Cole and Shaheen are both Republicans, but she said a victory for her opponent would give evangelicals a majority on the five-person commission. Cole is a member of Custer Road United Methodist Church.
"This was the whole game plan," Cole said. "They’re going to be running busloads of people from Prestonwood Bible study to vote."
Cole said she has gay relatives and didn’t even consider Nichols’ sexual orientation when she helped establish the Collin County Teen Court in response to his proposal in 2006.
"It never came up," Cole said. "That’s not how I start out my conversations."
Despite her apparent gay-friendliness, Cole said she doesn’t want to debate the issue 10 days prior to an election. She also said she fears the attack could jeopardize the entire Teen Court program, which has been a success.
"We’re going to lose the whole damn thing on top of losing this election," she said.
Nichol said he’s been involved with Teen Court since he was a freshman in high school, when he served as a juror in a pilot version of the program. Nichols, who came out as gay when he was 16, became coordinator in October 2006 after the commission unanimously voted to fund Teen Court countywide.
Teen Court allows people 18 and under charged with class-C misdemeanors to avoid having convictions go on their records. Cases are prosecuted, defended and adjudicated by fellow teens.
As coordinator, Nichols said he manages cases, trains volunteers, raises money and conducts public relations. Nichols is also president-elect of the Teen Court Association of Texas.
Juveniles prosecuted in Teen Court are far less likely to reoffend, according to Nichols, and have contributed more than 5,000 volunteer hours in the form of community service.
"Obviously, I have a flawless criminal background and have been an advocate for youth safety," Nichols said. "There’s nothing anyone can do to say that I’m not dedicated to the program of Teen Court and its benefit for the community. We’re doing great things for kids, and I stand behind that 110 percent."
Nichols downplayed the e-mail attack but said he was concerned about the potential impact on Cole’s race as well as his job.
The attack came to Dallas Voice’s attention on Monday, March 24, when Nichols contacted the newspaper to request that it disable the link so those who received the e-mail couldn’t access the article.
Nichols, who was reluctant to be interviewed for this article, said he’s not trying to hide the fact that he’s gay but doesn’t want to give the attack undue attention.
"For all I know, it was some fringe radicals who are resorting to childish tactics," Nichols said. "It was sent from an anonymous address, which is cowardly to say the least."
Nichols said he doesn’t believe his opponent in the City Council race, Pat Miner, had anything to do with the e-mail.
Contacted by Dallas Voice, Miner said, "This is the first I’ve heard of it, and I have not authorized anything like this." He added that he doesn’t think Nichols’ sexual orientation should be an issue in their race.
Nichols said he plans to stay focused on the issues facing the city.
The strategy of downplaying the attack may make sense in a conservative city like Plano, where any additional publicity could serve to increase the negative impact of gay-baiting.
Nichols has been endorsed by the Washington, D.C.-based Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, an LGBT political action committee that provides mandatory training including how to respond to such attacks.
Denis Dison, a spokesman for the Victory Fund, said the group’s recommended response is "very situational."
"There are times obviously when you can do yourself a little bit of harm by giving it more exposure, and there are times when you need help and you need people to understand what you’re up against so you want to expose it," Dison said. "There’s not one piece of advice that fits all situations. Very, very general advice would be to stay on your message and don’t let your opposition distract you."
Although Plano is conservative, the president of the Collin County Gay and Lesbian Alliance, an LGBT equality group, said he doesn’t think anti-gay attitudes are pervasive there.
"These small-minded people are going to do what they do, and we just need to stand strong," said CCGLA President Morris Garcia, a Plano resident who supports Nichols.
"I think it’s just through education and basically getting to know each other that we’ll be able to overcome this hatred that seems to surface every once in a while. It exists everywhere, and it will surface from time to time. But it’s not widespread, thank God, and that’s got to be an indication that we’re making some progress."
Scientific studies show gays are no more likely than straight people, and in fact may be less likely, to commit child sexual abuse.
"Activists and politicians who say otherwise are simply appealing to ignorance and fear to mobilize anti-gay bias for political gain," the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said in a recent paper on the subject.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 28, 2008.