By John Wright

Austin gets first out councilmember; Carrollton Mayor Becky Miller loses

Justin Nichols

PLANO — At his election watch party on Saturday, May 10, defeated City Council candidate Justin Nichols said he jokingly announced that he’ll be running for the Precinct 2 seat on the Collin County Commissioners Court in 2010.

The Precinct 2 seat is occupied by Commissioner Jerry Hoagland, who in March proposed firing Nichols, Collin County’s Teen Court coordinator, for being gay.

Hoagland later withdrew the proposal amid media scrutiny, but not before the controversy had overshadowed Nichols’ race against Pat Miner for the Place 1 Plano City Council seat.

The 23-year-old Nichols said this week although he has no intentions of running against Hoagland, it’s unlikely that this was his last political campaign. And despite the controversy, Nichols said he’s proud of what he accomplished.

Nichols, who was vying to become Plano’s first-ever openly gay councilmember, captured 40 percent of the vote to Miner’s 60 percent.

"I do plan on staying involved in public service, and I think it’s only a matter of time before I run again," Nichols said Wednesday, May 14. "I left this race feeling much more accepted, feeling much more a part of this community than I did before. … I think we’ve had a lot of success in the last few months. I think it all turned out a lot better than what some expected."

Despite Plano’s reputation as one of Texas’ most conservative big cities, Nichols said he doesn’t believe his sexual orientation cost him the race.

Nichols noted that he performed better than two of the other three losing Plano City Council candidates, and all four races were decided by roughly the same margin, 60 percent to 40 percent.

"To me that shows that a candidate can win regardless of their orientation," Nichols said. "I think that’s the hidden gem in all this — it proves that there’s not this contingent of people who are just going to come out and discriminate. There’s a group of core Plano voters, and you’ve got to win that group over on the merits."

Nichols also said he’s not worried that his job with the county will again be threatened.

"I think that the issue’s been put to rest," he said.

Nichols was one of two openly gay candidates statewide running for City Council seats in May 10 municipal elections. In Austin, out lesbian Randi Shade scored a lopsided victory, capturing 64 percent of the vote to incumbent Jennifer Kim’s 27 percent and Ken Weiss’ 9 percent.

The 42-year-old Shade, who directed the state’s Americorps volunteer program for Govs. Ann Richards and George W. Bush, will be the state capital’s first openly gay city councilmember.

"We were really surprised it was that big a win, but we were thrilled," Shade said. "My sense is that people were ready for a change. … I don’t think I won because I was a gay candidate, and I don’t think I lost votes because I was a gay candidate. It’s just kind of a non-issue here."

Both Nichols and Shade were endorsed by the Washington, D.C.-based Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a political action committee that makes financial contributions to the campaigns of openly gay candidates nationwide. Shade also received endorsements from Stonewall Democrats of Travis County and the Austin Lesbian and Gay Political Caucus.

Nichols and Shade were two of eight candidates in Texas who’ve been endorsed by the Victory Fund in 2008, more than in any other state except California, according to Denis Dison, a spokesman for the group.

Victory Fund-endorsed candidates Brian Thompson and Glen Maxey lost Democratic primaries in March for Texas House and Travis County Tax Assessor/Collector, respectively.

Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez and two openly gay judicial candidates in Harris County won Democratic primaries and face November contests. Rosemary Lehmberg won her Democratic primary for Travis County District Attorney and is unopposed on the November ballot.

Dison said Nichols’ defeat was a disappointment.

"Any time any one of our candidates loses it’s a disappointment," Dison said, adding that Nichols has been politically involved since he ran for a Plano school board seat at age 18. "To have the last five or six years of his life boiled down to the fact that he’s gay, and to have very little else get through, is very disappointing."

But Dison stood by Nichols’ decision to seek the Victory Fund’s endorsement and run as an openly gay candidate. The Victory Fund’s backing led to an article about Nichols’ candidacy in Dallas Voice, which in turn prompted Hoagland’s proposal to fire Nichols.

"We think that having openly gay people in public office leads to change; whether it’s a changed heart or a changed mind or a changed vote, those people are helping the broader quest for equality just by being who they are," Dison said. "That goal is not furthered in any way by us supporting people who aren’t out."

A loss in Carrollton
Also last week, gay-friendly Carrollton Mayor Becky Miller lost her re-election bid to challenger Ron Branson, a former city councilman. The Carrollton race appeared to turn on an article in The Dallas Morning News that called into question statements Miller has made about her past, including that she had a brother who was killed in Vietnam.

Miller, who became the first suburban mayor to ride in Dallas’ gay Pride parade in 2006, was ahead by 9 percentage points in early voting, which was completed before The DMN published the article May 7. Miller eventually lost by 9 percentage points, with turnout jumping from 8 percent in the 2005 Carrollton mayoral race to 22 percent this year. Miller didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.

Branson criticized Miller for riding in the Pride parade on his campaign Web site, and he told Dallas Voice that homosexuality is "just not a lifestyle I endorse."

Asked whether he plans to reach out to the LGBT community now that he’s been elected, Branson said: "I’m not sure what you mean by reaching out to them. People have different ideas about all kinds off subjects. I welcome the input from people who disagree with me."


This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 16, 2008.
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