The hotly contested race for Texas governor may not be the most highly anticipated issue on the November ballot. Instead, a challenge to the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) could be the catalyst that brings supporters and opponents to the polls in record numbers in the Bayou City.
The ordinance will go to a public vote if City Secretary Anna Russell verifies at least 17,269 of the 50,000 signatures opponents submitted on July 3. A spokesman for the Houston Area Pastors Council, a group opposed to the ordinance, says that they validated 30,000 of the signatures before turning them in. The City Secretary's office will have to verify all signatures; Russell declined to comment on how many signatures have been validated thus far.
While the City Secretary has until Aug. 4 to verify the necessary number of opponents' signatures to place the issue on the ballot, HERO supporters are already preparing for the likelihood of a public vote.
While Russell has until Aug. 4 to complete the process, HERO supporters are already preparing for the likelihood of a public vote. "We are proceeding like there will be a campaign in support of the mayor's ordinance," said campaign strategist Kathryn McNiel of K. Chase Consulting, who will help lead efforts to retain it.
McNiel says the campaign will focus on "explaining what the real facts of the ordinance are," reiterating what Mayor Annise Parker said at a City Hall press conference soon after the signatures were delivered to the City Secretary's office.
"Leading up to City Council's vote and since then, there has been a lot of misinformation spread about what the ordinance does and does not do," Parker said, in specific reference to the 'bathroom clause' contained in the ordinance. "There have been loud and frequent claims that this ordinance somehow provides men unfettered access to women's restrooms to do harm to women and children. Let's be clear: It has always been illegal for someone to access a restroom or locker room for the calculated purpose of causing a disturbance. There is nothing in the ordinance that changes this."
Supporters are concerned that people have been misled about the ordinance and not properly educated about what it covers. The mayor, as well as her strategists and supporters, insist the ordinance's goal is to "prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity or pregnancy."
Prior to passage of the ordinance by the Houston City Council in May, individuals would have to file a federal lawsuit if they felt they had been the victim of discrimination. With the ordinance in effect, Houstonians can file a complaint and deal with the issue at the city level instead.
Opponents argue that it should be up to the citizens to decide whether the ordinance should remain in effect. "It has been shown and demonstrated that the people of the city do not want this ordinance," Rev. Max Miller of the Baptist Ministers Association of Houston and Vicinity said at a press conference when the signatures were delivered to City Hall. Miller said that a poll commissioned by opponents show 82 percent of voters oppose the ordinance.
"We simply say: Allow the people to vote on this ordinance," he said.
The deadline for Houston City Council vote to place the referendum on the ballot is Aug. 18. The election will take place on Nov. 4.
Some political observers are surmising how the issue might affect the governor's race. Supporters of the ordinance hope that it will spur younger voters who feel strongly about equal rights but usually don't vote. That could help Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor. If more older voters turn out against the ordinance, conventional wisdom is they are likely to vote for Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor.