Ellen Cohen

Ellen Cohen

An editorial in Houston’s abOUT magazine (a free glossy distributed at bars, restaurants and clubs) questions whether former state representative, and current Houston City Council District C candidate Ellen Cohen is truly an ally of the LGBT community, as she claims.

The editorial questions Cohen’s acceptance of $10,000 in contributions from home builder Bob Perry during her 2010 Democratic legislative campaign (Perry was a major donor to the campaign to pass a statewide constitutional ban on marriage equality in 2005) and her record on LGBT issues while in Austin. In the two weeks since abOUT published the editorial, written under the nom de plume “Jack H,” the issue has snowballed, causing some to question abOUT’s connections to another District C candidate, and leading to a police complaint against the president of the city’s oldest LGBT organization.

Cohen acknowledges that she received the contribution from Perry but says: “I’ve never met him, he’s never asked me for anything. I am a huge supporter of the LGBT community, and have been since long before I ran for office.” As executive director of the Houston chapter of the American Jewish Committee, Cohen was a vocal supporter of efforts in the ’80s to obtain same-sex partner benefits for city of Houston employees. “Bob Perry contributed to me. I accepted the donation,” continued Cohen.

Perry is a major political donor. Of the current 14 members of the Houston City Council, at least half have accepted contributions from Perry (Melissa Noriega, C.O Bradford, Wanda Adams, Stephen Costello, Brenda Stardig, Mike Sullivan and out lesbian Councilwoman Sue Lovell). Both Mayor Annise Parker (whose election as the first out LGBT mayor of a major American city made headlines in 2009) and City Controller Ron Green have also accepted contributions. Perry also has a history of supporting Texas House members with strong records on LGBT issues. In addition to Cohen he has donated to the campaigns of Alma Allen, D-Houston, Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, and Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin (you may remember Turner and Dukes from their passionate defense of LGBT campus resource centers this last June).

Cohen also defends her record on LGBT issues during her two terms in the Legislature, “When you’re a freshmen or sophomore legislator, you don’t get to author major legislation — that honor goes to members who are more senior.”

Seniority plays heavily into the effectiveness of members of the Legislature. Senior members have more experience in how the system works and a greater opportunity to build relationships with other key lawmakers. During the 2009 legislative session sophomore Rep. Paula Pierson, D-Arlington, expressed a desire to file legislation that would have equalized the treatment of same and opposite-sex relationships between consenting teenagers (under current law opposite-sex relationships between an adult and minor who are within three years of each other’s age are permitted, but same-sex relationships are not). In the past the legislation had been carried by Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, who has served in the Legislature since 1991. Pierson’s disregard for decorum prompted a closed-door meeting of LGBT-allied house members (including Cohen), where senior members reiterated the propriety of following seniority. Eventually Coleman filed the legislation, and Pierson supported it.

During Cohen’s two terms there were four LGBT-specific pieces of legislation brought to the House floor for a vote, all of them amendments to larger bills. In 2007 Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, attempted to prevent student-led school prayer from being used to promote anti-LGBT hate speech and Coleman tried to require school districts to report instances of bullying and harassment using enumerated categories that included gender identity/expression and sexual orientation. Neither became law. In 2009 Coleman tried again to pass his reporting requirement legislation and Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, introduced an amendment to prevent faith-based charities using state funds from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. Both efforts were unsuccessful. In all four instances Cohen voted for the legislation. “There’s no question about my support for the LGBT community,” said Cohen. “I’m proud of my record.”

If the abOUT editorial had simply been a question of how to interpret facts (namely that Cohen accepted a contribution from Perry and did not author LGBT-specific legislation while in the Texas House) it would have been unlikely to generate controversy, but two statements in the original editorial unrelated to Cohen’s record have created a backlash against abOUT and its editor, Cade Michals. The editorial originally stated that Cohen’s office had not responded to a request for comment (abOUT has since added a comment from Cohen), and that the Houston GLBT Political Caucus (which has endorsed Cohen) had been “silent” on the matter. Caucus president Noel Freeman says that, in fact, Cohen had made a statement to abOUT before they published the editorial and that, as president of the Caucus, Freeman had already granted an interview to the Houston Chronicle on the matter and would have happily done the same for abOUT had they bothered to contact the Caucus before publishing their article. Freeman contacted Michals requesting a retraction of the editorial in light of these inaccuracies. Freeman says he told Michals that if abOUT did not retract or issue a correction that the Caucus would contact the magazine’s advertisers and request that they pull their ads. “That’s a standard tool in the political activist’s tool belt: boycotts,” said Freeman.

In response, Michals contacted the Houston Police Department and filed a complaint against Freeman. According to Freeman, Michals also threatened to contact a “multi-millionaire investor with a lawyer from Baker Botts who was going to file a lawsuit against me for slander and harassment. He then told me to ‘bring it on’ several times and I ended the call.” Freeman is emphatic that he made no threats against Michals.

The Houston Police Department does not release the text of complaints that are still under investigation. abOUT Magazine was contacted to request the text of the complaint, but Editor in Chief Christopher Munoz stated that they were unable to provide it. In a follow-up post on abOUT’s website Michals accused Freeman of “threating [sic] to disclose a incident in my past that is no secret to anyone.” Michals went on to explain that he had spent time in jail “for a relationship when I was 16 years old and the other person was 14.” (According to the Houston Press Michals was 17 when he was charged and the victim was 13.) Freeman flatly denies he made any such threat.

According to phone records provided by Freeman, Josh Verde, another City Council District C candidate and the only out LGBT candidate in the race, contacted him less than five minutes after he ended the phone call with Michals. Freeman says Verde called, at the bequest of Michals, to dissuade Freeman of pursuing his request for a retraction. Verde claims he called Freeman to accuse him of stealing a rack of abOUT issues and that his attempts to persuade Freeman to drop his request for a retraction were based on a fear that the situation would damage the Caucus’ reputation. Verde refused to answer whether he made the call at the request of Michals.

Commenters on the Press article have been quick to connect Verde with Michals and abOUT. Verde and Michals are former co-workers. Michals previously worked as general manager of Vue Nightclub. His tenure overlaps that of Verde’s work as a bartender at Guava Lamp, a trendy gay bar. Both bars are owned by Elwood Gould Jr. and housed in the same building. Verde held his campaign launch party at Vue with Michals in attendance.

Another District C candidate, Karen Derr, first publicly raised the issue of the Perry contributions during the candidate screening held by the Houston Chronicle. Derr claims that her office researched contributions to other candidates and discovered the information independently, but according to Randy Locke, another District C candidate, Verde has privately criticized Cohen to other District C candidates for accepting funds from Perry since long before Derr raised the question. “Mr. Verde has made us all aware of that, he’s mentioned it several times,” Locke says.

Every candidate in the District C race was contacted via phone for this article. Verde refused a phone interview but e-mailed a prepared statement saying: “Disorganization and infighting are toxic to any community, movement, or cause. I am always disappointed when I hear about instances of infighting within the LGBT community. We are most strong when we stand with one voice toward a common goal. I remain committed to the LGBT community and implore all of those involved with this particular matter to resolve their differences quickly and amicably so that we may remain focused on more important matters.”

In follow-up e-mails Verde was asked if he was consulted on the abOUT editorial before publication, if he provided information on the Perry contribution to the Derr campaign or to abOUT magazine and if Michals asked him to call Freeman. Verde has refused to answer any questions on the matter.

For Freeman, the issue is not about an LGBT publication criticizing a candidate backed by the Caucus, but about journalistic ethics. “The Caucus takes issue with the intentional omission and distortion of facts in the original article. We do not take issue with what may be valid questions or criticisms of a candidate.”

For Cohen, the abOUT editorial is a distraction from her long record of LGBT advocacy. “I have dedicated my life to equality for all people. I have always been supportive of the GLBT community and will continue to be so on City Council. As executive director of the Houston chapter of the American Jewish Committee, and CEO of the Houston Area Women’s Center, I took a leadership role in advocating for same-sex partner benefits at the city, and encouraged other non-profits to do the same. In the Legislature, I worked on legislation that addressed health care rights of domestic partners, bullying in Texas schools, and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”

For Verde, his connections to abOUT, Michals and the pseudonymously authored editorial by “Jack H,” are quickly becoming an albatross of negative campaigning weighing down his candidacy, from which he is working hard to distance himself.

Disclosure statement: The author of this post volunteered for the 2010 Cohen legislative campaign and is a former member of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus.