How We Won: HD-134 – A GLBT Victory

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Ed. note: This is a first in a series done by BOR examining how Democrats made significant gains in the Texas House this election cycle.

Ellen Cohen's victory on Tuesday was a sweet one for the GLBT community in Houston. For those of you who don't know Houston, Montrose is a progressive, urban neighborhood in Houston with a large GLBT community. Gentrification has changed the neighborhood somewhat over the past decade, but it's still the part of Houston that “looks like Austin”, with bustling smoke filled cafes, funky thrift shops, and home of people with purple hair and leather boots. In 2003, re-districting split the neighborhood into two districts to dilute its voting power, with the eastern half going to Rep. Garnet Coleman and the western half going to Rep. Debra Danburg, who was defeated by Martha Wong, in part because she postured herself as a social moderate in 2002. But in the lege Wong voted against protecting GLBT youth in public schools, against same-sex marriage in committee and abstaining on the floor of the Texas House.

Houston's GLBT community was ready for change, and Ellen Cohen's race was an unprecedented campaign for the Houston GLBT Political Caucus (HGLBTPC). In no other race in Texas has the GLBT community ever involved itself as deeply in a campaign as it did in this race. Our field campaign included:

  • Starting blockwalking at the beginning of August, twice a week, every week, up until the election. Targeting the five precincts that make up West Montrose, we knocked over 4,300 doors for Ellen Cohen. The HGLBTPC is an all-volunteer organization, and yet our blockwalking made up one-fifth of Cohen's field campaign.
  • Distributing over 2,500 voter registration cards in Montrose, dropping 1,200 voter registration cards at the homes of unregistered voters and mailing 1,300 voter registraion cards to progressive and GLBT people we had identified at gay bars and the Pride Parade who weren't registered to vote.
  • Sending three pieces of direct mail (our endorsement card twice and this piece on Wong) to the 9,100 GLBT and progressive voters we had identified in HD-134. That last part was the outcome of over three years of work in HD-134. During last year's campaign against Texas' marriage amendment, we were thinking long-term about our work in a fight we knew we would likely lose. The Houston GLBT Political Caucus vigorously blockwalked in Montrose identifying voters who were opposed to the marriage amendment.
  • Staffing the five precincts in Montrose with volunteers for the twelve hours the polls were open.


What's the signifigance of this election for the GLBT community?In short: huge. To be sure, our field campaign worked because we were supporting a candidate who couldn't be better on GLBT issues. HD-134 was one of the few districts to vote against the marriage amendment last year, and Ellen Cohen effectively made her position on same-sex marriage (which she supports) into an political asset by arguing for fairness openly and unapologetically, rather than the liability that the 2004 election inaccurately made it look like in the public debate.

That's why this election was so important to us; we proved that our community can both mobilize to win elections, and effectively argue for our issues in a larger public sphere. At a blogger's lunch we had in Houston back in April, one prominent Houston blogger laughed in my face somewhat derisively when I told him that Ellen Cohen supported same-sex marriage, as if those bonehead Democrats could never learn that the reason they lost in 2004 was because of the GLBT albatross around their necks. But combined with Arizona's defeat of their marriage amendment this week, the negative impact Wisconsin's marriage amendment had for Republicans in their state legislature, and Rep. Hubert Vo's victory over Talmadge Heflin (who played the GLBT card when some phony robocalls pretending to be from us surfaced a few weeks ago), Cohen's victory brings us closer to putting to bed the notion that GLBT issues are consistently political poison for Democrats.

Issue positions and political support are intertwined; unless they feel strongly about the issues, most politicians won't take a stance on an issue they might see as a liabiity unless they know there will be broad support for those issues when elections roll around. Ellen Cohen is excellent on GLBT issues and will be an advocate for her GLBT constituents in the legislature, but her election shows that there can and will be political support for candidates and elected officials worried about the consequences of taking a progressive stance on GLBT issues. Houston's GLBT community helped get Ellen Cohen elected, and our efforts will continue to move forward issues of fairness for GLBT people in the short- and long-term.

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12 Comments

  1. Excellent diary, Ryan
    The efforts made by the GLBT groups in Houston in this race were incredible. In most races, we see groups like TTLA, TSTA, or even Parent PAC get involved financially in specific races, and local groups (like the Travis County Coordinated Campaign) focus on the “grunt work.” The GLBT community did both, and to tremendous success.

    Congratulations on all the work you did, Ryan, and I hope everyone fully realizes the weight of this victory. It should be something we talk about across Texas, and across this country.

  2. Victory Fund wins
    The Victory Fund sent out a note that 67 of their endorsed GLBT candidates won federal, state, and local offices on election day.

    Most notably to me are the wins in southern and western states that normally would be viewed as anti-gay. Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Oklahoma, Idaho, and even Utah! That is just a few of the states where GLBT candidates were either elected for the 1st time or even re-elected. One of those new elections happens to be Gary Fitzsimmons for Dallas County District Clerk.

    I think this bodes very well for GLBT candidates who want to test the political waters in Texas in 2008. The fact you are gay is becoming less and less of an issue if the voter believes you can do a good job, regardless of their moral views.

  3. Not to rain on anyones parade…
    but in a district that isnt id say safely blue do we want to give the other side fodder to use against ms cohen next time?

    What the GLBT community did is amazing, but trumpeting our own horn about it in this type of HD is risky. 

    /Zips up nomex suit.

  4. Great Job & Great Post!
    Ryan,

    You guys did a hell of a job down there. A lot of other “special interest groups,” (I hate that name, but it's the only thing I can think of) like pro-choice, anti-TTC, etc., can learn a lot from you guys.

    Kudos to all of you. Not only should you all be damned proud, you should trumpet this victory all over the state and right into the gallery of the House on innauguration day.

  5. Congratulations to Ellen Cohen and to the GLBT community!
    Way to keep up the fight and good for Ellen that she did not back away from progressive issues.

    And thank you for endlessly beating on the Wong woman.  She's nuts.  Now she'll have more free time to gather more of her nuts and move on.  I expect to see her at the TX-GOP party level.

  6. thanks
    Thanks for your leadership, Ryan. 

    The margin of victory sends a clear message to the Republicans that the voters of the 134th reject Martha Wong and her agenda. 

  7. Maybe the voters just liked her?
    Maybe the voters just liked her and that will go a long way for everyone seeking a sense of unity as well as community in the district.  Ellen Cohen knows how to build bridges.  She's been building them for years.

    As for the slight tone of homophobic paranoia to be found in some of the above comments, I think one thing that might have helped her immensely was Harris County Republican chair Jared Woodfill's “message” that Ellen Cohen would “advance” the “homosexual agenda” without realizing that some were looking at the “Republican agenda” finally in terms of the hypocrisy of Congressman Mark Foley and Reverend Ted Haggard.  The two poster boys of the Republican “morality” movement.

    I suspect quite a few Republicans voted for Ellen Cohen. And that is all that needs to be said about Ellen Cohen's political future.

  8. My only concern is this…
    this year was an anti-incumbent year.  In 08 who knows which way the voters in that district will go.

  9. Talton really could have been taken out
    Janette Sexton had health issues during the campaign season which precluded her being able to aggressively challenge.

    This seat ought to be at the top of the 2008 list.

  10. this is true
    And with that margin of victory down in 45, who knows if doing so well will invite a primary challenge from the left if the district is no longer viewed as “only winnable by Patrick Rose”. All valid points my friend, just saying. :)

  11. But you have to understand…
    Ellen Cohen had a clear, unapologetic argument for same-sex marriage. Martha Wong had a muddled message that said she supported civil unions but not marriage, but voted for HJR 6 in committee even though she knew a civil unions ban would get added on the floor, but abstained on the bill that banned civil unions despite her ostensible support for them. Cohen made the argument for something, while no one could figure out what Wong's position actually was.

    Also remember: in last year's city council run-off for Distict C (which overlaps HD-134 excluding Montrose), Anne Clutterbuck was also unapologetic in supporting GLBT issues (as much as a Republican can be), while George Hittner veered hard-right and attacked Clutterbuck in direct-mail for having the support of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. Clutterbuck won by a sixteen-point margin.

    That's exactly my point: in educated urban and suburban areas, taking a hard-right stance on social issues is increasingly becoming an liability for candidates, not an asset. Cohen didn't win in spite of her support of GLBT issues, she won because of it. I can understand why some people might still make the argument in parts of the south and rural areas, but this election has shown the lie of the 2004 conventional wisdom that GLBT issues are posion pills for all candidates in marginal districts.

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