From Prop 8 to sheriff’s race to Obama-McCain, election called biggest ever for LGBT community
Louise Young said she still has one of the posters that were sent to Dallas by legendary gay politician Harvey Milk a few months before he was assassinated.
Young had just become president of the Dallas Gay Alliance when she found herself sitting next to Milk, who’d recently been elected city supervisor in San Francisco, at a gay-rights luncheon in Dallas in June 1978.
The two talked about strategies for increasing voter turnout in the gay and lesbian community, and Milk promised to send Young the posters, which simply said: "Vote as if your life depended on it. It does."
"We put those out all over the community and put cardholders with voter registration cards in them," Young said. "It really made a difference that year. I hope that kind of set in motion a habit of our community really participating in voting."
Thirty years later, the now-61-year-old Young, one of Dallas’ pioneering LGBT activists, said she believes the admonition from the poster is more applicable than ever in 2008.
"There has never been election in my lifetime where we’ve had so much at stake — this is it — and quite frankly there may never be another one," said Young, who also recalled distributing campaign literature for President John F. Kennedy as a teenager in Oklahoma in 1960. "There may never be one this important, so members of our community should have no excuse for staying home from the polls. So I hope with all my heart that members of our community will vote early, and if not early, vote on Election Day, and like Harvey Milk said, vote as though your life depended on it, because it does."
Among other things, LGBT voters in North Texas who cast ballots on or before Tuesday, Nov. 4 will help decide whether to elect the nation’s first African-American president, who also happens to be the most gay-friendly major party candidate in U.S. history; whether to re-elect the nation’s first lesbian Latina sheriff, Dallas County’s Lupe Valdez; whether to unseat a leading opponent of gay rights in the U.S. Senate, John Cornyn; and whether to install a Democratic majority in the state House, which could pave the way for major LGBT advances in Texas.
But arguably the most important election for the future of LGBT equality will occur in California, where voters will decide whether to preserve the right of same-sex couples to marry in the nation’s most populous state.
The California Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in May, but Proposition 8 would overturn the court’s decision by amending the state’s constitution to ban the practice.
The marriage fight in California is seen as critical due to the state’s broad social, economic and political influence on the rest of the country. Marty Rouse, field director for the Human Rights Campaign, said that in terms of gay rights in the U.S., the fate of Proposition 8 will amount to a difference of two decades.
"We can fast forward full equality 10 years, or we can go back 10 years," Rouse said. "We have to defeat this amendment."
While Texans can’t weigh in on Prop 8 at the ballot box, they’ve contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to groups supporting or opposing the measure. And many, like Young and longtime partner Vivienne Armstrong, have traveled to California to take advantage of their first opportunity to marry on U.S. soil. (Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2004, didn’t allow out-of-state couples to marry there until July of this year.)
All told, more than 16,000 same-sex couples risk having their marriages invalidated if Prop 8 passes, and groups supporting and opposing Prop 8 have raised more than $60 million, eclipsing the combined total of $33 million spent in the 24 states where similar measures have been put to voters since 2004. In Texas in 2005, groups supporting and opposing a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage raised a total of $1.3 million. ‘
Polls conducted over the last few weeks show a statistical dead heat on Prop 8 among California voters.
After Prop 8, the top election priority for gay rights nationally is the presidential race, which pits a candidate who largely supports LGBT equality, Democrat Barack Obama, against one who does not, Republican John McCain.
Although he’s stopped short of endorsing same-sex marriage, Obama favors the legal equivalent for gay couples in the form of civil unions. Obama also opposes state and federal constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage.
McCain opposes a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, but only because he believes the matter should be left to the states. McCain supported a constitutional amendment that would have banned both same-sex marriage and civil unions in his home state of Arizona in 2006.
The next president is expected to appoint at least two Supreme Court justices, who may help decide everything from the legality of same-sex marriage to — theoretically — a case that would overturn Lawrence v. Texas and again make gay sex illegal.
The next president also may be asked to sign several key pieces of LGBT-related legislation, including the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, which would prohibit anti-gay job discrimination; a repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell," which bans openly gay people from serving in the U.S. military; a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, which makes gay couples ineligible for more than 1,000 federal benefits; and hate crimes legislation that includes protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Based on past votes and statements made during their campaigns, Obama would sign all of the bills into law, while McCain would sign none.
McCain’s VP pick, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, said recently that she supports a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Palin also supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in Alaska, and opposed domestic partner benefits for state employees. Obama’s VP pick, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, is viewed as an ally to the LGBT community and received a 95 percent on HRC’s most recent Congressional Scorecard.
Unfortunately, Obama supporters in Texas aren’t likely to have any more impact on the presidential race than they do on the outcome of Proposition 8 — with the reliably red state already having been added to McCain’s electoral totals. But at the same time, local LGBT leaders are counting on Obama’s presence at the top of the Democratic ticket to fuel turnout in local races — and particularly the re-election bid of Valdez.
After defeating Republican Danny Chandler in 2004, Valdez became the first woman, the first Hispanic and the first lesbian to serve as sheriff of Dallas County. Valdez also became the nation’s first lesbian Latina sheriff, and the first member of the Democratic Party to hold Dallas County’s top law enforcement post in nearly 30 years.
Valdez’s victory was a precursor to the Democratic sweep of the 2006 election — when the nation’s ninth-largest county finally went blue. So it should come as no surprise that the Republican Party has made defeating Valdez its top local priority in 2008.
Valdez has been widely criticized for repeated failed inspections of the jail system she oversees. But Valdez maintains she’s improved the troubled jails and that many of the problems she inherited from previous administrations.
Despite a stiff challenge from former Irving Police Chief Lowell Cannaday, who has raised more money, Valdez said this week she’s confident as Election Day approaches.
"It looks really good," Valdez said as she greeted early voters outside the Beckley Sub Courthouse in Oak Cliff on Tuesday, Oct. 28. "I’m totally encouraged by the numbers."
By the "numbers," Valdez meant the 231,850 people who’d voted early by Sunday evening, Oct. 26, which was up from 145,452 in 2004.
If Valdez can pull out the sheriff’s race, it would mark the first time an openly gay has been re-elected to a countywide position, according to Jesse Garcia, president of Stonewall Democrats of Dallas.
County Judge Jim Foster and District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons, also openly gay, were elected in 2006 and won’t be up for re-election until 2010.
"It’s symbolic in the sense that’s it’s one of us," Garcia said. "It’s an LGBT person who decided to buck the system and run and got elected. It’s monumental if she gets re-elected. This will be the first test to see countywide, can we prove it to ourselves?"
Valdez’s race is also on the national gay political radar. The Washington, D.C.-based Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, the nation’s largest LGBT political action committee, lists the Dallas County sheriff as one of its top 10 endorsed candidates in 2008. The Victory Fund has endorsed 111 candidates nationwide.
Denis Dison, a spokesman for the Victory Fund, said Valdez’s victory in 2004 was a shock to people both inside and outside the LGBT community
"I think it spoke to a greater truth about the way people vote and the way people see their own self-interest when they go to the polls," Dison said. "They looked beyond sexual orientation, and I think that if we can get Valdez re-elected, it will validate that concept that people are willing to look beyond sexual orientation, no matter how much The Dallas Morning News wants to bring it up."
Texas House, other races
Elsewhere on the local front, several hotly contested races in North Texas could help decide whether Democrats gain a majority in the state House.
LGBT leaders say a Democratic majority would mean the community is no longer subject to attacks by the Legislature, which in recent years has banned same-sex marriage and threatened to ban gay foster-parenting. A Democratic majority could also mean unprecedented gains for the LGBT community in the 2009 legislative session, such as a statewide ban on anti-gay job discrimination, a prohibition on bullying in schools based on sexual orientation/gender identity, and a bill granting hospital visitation rights to same-sex partners.
"By just capturing five more seats, we’re no longer threatened," Garcia said of the margin needed to obtain a Democratic majority in the House. "We’re no longer the target, and we’re able to concentrate on good legislation."
Stonewall Democrats has endorsed six House candidates in Dallas County, and gay rights groups are involved in at least three other races in Tarrant County. Texas Equity, a pro-equality statewide PAC, has now endorsed 12 candidates for Texas House.
In addition to winning the sheriff’s race and flipping the House, Garcia cited as a top priority Democrat Rick Noriega’s bid to unseat U.S. Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas. Cornyn, a leading advocate for a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, has received a 0 percent of each of HRC’s last three Congressional Scorecards.
Noriega is among 30 local, state and federal candidates endorsed by Stonewall Democrats of Dallas, and the group has registered more than 1,000 new voters in the last few months.
"When I took voters to the polls on Sunday, people just had this feeling that man, this is big," Garcia said this week. "This is the one where if you don’t participate, you’re going to regret it, because there are so many things on the line for us."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 31, 2008.