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.
- Raising over $15,000 for the Cohen campaign ($7,000 from Houston's GLBT community, $3,000 from Equality Texas, and $5,000 from Human Rights Campaign).
- 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.