After having at least 1 openly LGBT council member for 14 years, Dallas hasn’t had an out representative at the horseshoe for the last 6
Oakley lost to Tom Leppert in a runoff in the mayor’s race, and gay candidate Joseph Hernandez was narrowly defeated by Dave Neumann in the race to replace Oakley on the council in District 3.
Since then, the nation’s ninth-largest city has gone six years — and three election cycles — without an openly LGBT person on its 15-member governing body.
But with three openly gay candidates running in two districts this year, some observers say 2013 marks the best chance since Oakley’s departure for an out candidate to return to the horseshoe.
Oakley said he thinks gay candidate Leland Burk — who faces Jennifer Staubach Gates in District 13 — has a “decent chance” of victory May 11. But he said Herschel Weisfeld, a gay candidate in District 2, faces an “uphill battle” against frontrunner Adam Medrano.
Another out candidate in District 2, Vernon Franko, is considered a longshot.
“It’s always important that we have a seat at the table and we’re represented,” said Oakley, who called the six-year absence of an LGBT council member “unfortunate” and compared gay representation to African-American, Hispanic or female representation.
“I cannot walk in someone else’s shoes to understand that community better than a person from that community,” he said. “We represent people based on our life experiences, and that’s true for every minority group.”
All of Dallas’ major LGBT legislative victories — from its nondiscrimination ordinance to domestic partner benefits for city employees — were achieved with at least one openly LGBT person on the council. And without an LGBT council member, the city appears to have lost pace on equality — receiving a mediocre score of 76 on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index last year.
Denis Dison, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Victory Fund, which backs openly LGBT candidates nationwide, said the benefit of having a seat at the table is essentially two-fold.
One, openly LGBT people make the most indefatigable champions for pro-equality legislation. For example, Dison said states with the highest number of openly LGBT legislators are the ones who’ve passed marriage equality.
He pointed to the case of Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who became the first Republican senator to back marriage equality after his son came out as gay.
“That dynamic plays out not just with parents and their kids, but with colleagues and the people they sit next to on a City Council,” Dison said.
The other principle benefit of having openly LGBT elected officials is that they serve as role models, Dison said.
“Having an elected official helping to run your city or your town who is openly LGBT sends an incredible message to kids who are hoping to be able to live an authentic life and succeed,” Dison said.
Openly gay former Dallas City Councilman Chris Luna said ideally, young LGBT people in Dallas would never be without such a role model.
“In a perfect world, we would have an LGBT councilperson at all times, and I am a big advocate that while allies do a great job, nothing can replace having a seat at the table and being able to speak firsthand about your experience and background and history,” Luna said.
Luna, who is “cautiously optimistic” Burk will win, said politics is cyclical so he doesn’t view the six-year absence of an out councilmember as a “calamity.” But Luna said the drought does raise questions about whether City Hall, or perhaps the mayor’s office, should have a permanent LGBT liaison staff position.
“I think that takes the pressure off during the times when we don’t have an LGBT councilperson that the community can go to,” Luna said. “Maybe this [Councilwoman Delia Jasso’s LGBT] Task Force helps fulfill that role, but that person could be staff liaison to the Task Force.”
Luna also said there’s a possibility Medrano, who has refused to answer questions about his sexual orientation, will come out as gay if he is elected.
Luna said for political reasons, he did not run as openly gay in his first campaign for council 22 years ago.
Luna met with LGBT leaders, who said it was OK for him not to run as openly gay as long as he didn’t deny it.
Luna would eventually come out during his second term after Craig McDaniel became the first openly gay person elected to the council in 1993.
“From personal experience, once you are elected, it’s somewhat freeing,” Luna said. “If people were going to hold it against you, they can’t. At that point, you’ve got two years to prove yourself.”
McDaniel said he believes having an openly LGBT person on the council is “less important” than it once was, because there’s no longer a threat of anti-LGBT legislation. But McDaniel said a win for Burk in conservative District 13, which covers all of Preston Hollow, would make “interesting bookends to the 20-year era started when I got elected.”
When McDaniel represented District 14, the council member from District 13 was Donna Blumer, who was then president of the anti-gay Eagle Forum.
“It would be interesting to have an openly gay person elected there, to replace a legacy of people who’ve usually been identified as our main enemy,” McDaniel said.
In District 2, Weisfeld has made an issue of the fact that Medrano refuses to answer questions about his sexual orientation, declaring at a recent candidate forum: “I don’t lie, I don’t hide. I answer the question and I say I am proudly a gay American.”
Weisfeld said he’s not running because he’s gay and added that the lack of an openly LGBT person on the council is “one small piece of the value of my candidacy.” But he vowed that if elected, he would be the champion the LGBT community has been missing at the horseshoe, including working to dramatically improve the city’s score on the Municipal Equality Index; standing up to the board of Dallas Area Rapid Transit, which has repeatedly delayed offering domestic partner benefits; and confronting Mayor Mike Rawlings about his refusal to sign a pledge in support of marriage equality, which Weisfeld called “reprehensible.”
“An out advocate is a much stronger advocate for our community than our closest ally,” Weisfeld said. “I believe that one who can speak honestly and truthfully with openness and integrity is going to be able to carry a stronger message.”
Burk didn’t return a phone call seeking comment for this story.
Franko agreed with Oakley, Luna and Weisfeld that it’s important to have an openly LGBT person on the council.
“At least we do have three members of the community running,” Franko said. “I think that’s encouraging.”
Getting your vote out
Early voting in the May 11 Municipal Election begins Monday, April 29, and runs through Tuesday, May 7. For a full list of early voting dates, times and locations, visit DallasCountyVotes.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 26, 2013.