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No Evidence Yet of Backlash to Houston HERO Vote

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Just hours after it became clear that Houston’s non-discrimination ordinance, HERO, would be trounced at the polls last week, Houston Mayor Annise Parker predicted a “direct, economic backlash” for the city, akin to criticism and boycott threats in Arizona and Indiana following similar controversies. 

But so far, any visible backlash has yet to materialize, and Houston appears at no risk of losing two upcoming major sporting events. 

Tagged by opponents as “the bathroom ordinance,” HERO would have made it illegal to discriminate against someone based on 15 different “protected characteristics” — including sexual orientation and gender identity. Opponents’ ad campaigns targeted “gender identity” in particular and featured ominous, hulking men stalking little girls into bathroom stalls. That tactic proved largely successful, and the ordinance was defeated by roughly 61 percent of voters. 

In the days after the vote, a petition asking National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell to revoke Houston’s status as host for the 2017 Super Bowl garnered roughly 3,500 signatures, and Chad Griffin, president of the national Human Rights Campaign, wrote Goodell seeking an “emergency meeting” to discuss pulling out. 

But the NFL said its plans aren’t going to change. 

“We will work closely with the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee to make sure all fans feel welcomed at our events,” a statement released by the NFL said. “Our policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness.” 

Similarly, the National Collegiate Athletic Association said it will proceed with plans to hold the Final Four portion of next year’s March Madness basketball tournament in Houston. However, Dan Gavitt, vice president of men’s basketball championships, conceded that the HERO vote “could impact the NCAA returning to Houston” in the future. 

HERO opponents dismissed concerns of economic backlash from the beginning. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick went one step further, telling The New York Times that even if HERO’s defeat did come at a cost, it would be worth it. If organizations like the NFL “would even suggest that the Super Bowl not be played here because we don’t want men in ladies’ bathrooms, then we need a new commissioner,” he said. 

If anything, the ordinance’s defeat has invigorated Patrick and other opponents of non-discrimination measures that include sexual orientation and gender identity. On Wednesday, Patrick criticized the Dallas City Council for reaffirming a similar ordinance that the city has had in place for more than a decade. 

The response to Houston’s vote, relatively quiet outside the LGBT advocacy community, stands in contrast to larger controversies sparked by similar bills in recent years. 

Before Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a version of the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act last year, several major companies — including the NFL, Delta Air Lines, and Major League Baseball — issued statements of concern, and many groups threatened boycotts. The bill would have allowed businesses to deny service to gay and lesbian customers for religious reasons. 

Indiana faced a similar backlash earlier this year, when Gov. Mike Pence signed a version of the same bill. The NCAA described itself as “especially concerned,” executives at Apple, PayPal and Yelp expressed opposition, and at least one convention threatened to relocate. 

HERO advocates say they aren’t sure why the latest developments in Houston aren’t attracting as much attention. Jessica Shortall, managing director of Texas Competes — a coalition of businesses that lobbies for pro-LGBT policies they say will keep Texas economically competitive — said it’s hard to know what, if any, backlash there will be. 

“It’s impossible to predict to what extent the business community will react to what has happened in Houston,” Shortall said. 

Still, she said, cities can take economic hits in many forms — some more subtle than boycotts. 

“On a broader scale, there’s a talent issue to think about,” Shortall said. “Especially when we’re looking at millennials, the brand of a place is something that people who care about attracting talent to a state or region think about.” 

Shortall cited Fort Worth as an example — earlier this year, city officials told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that Facebook examined the city’s non-discrimination ordinance, similar in language to HERO, before announcing it would build a new $1 billion data center. 

The effect of a given policy — or lack thereof, in HERO’s case — isn’t always quantifiable, she said. 

“It’s the cumulative effect of many individual decisions,” Shortall said. 

[gdlr_icon type=”icon-camera-retro” size=”16px” color=”#999999″]TOP IMAGE: Prop 1 signs posted along the Adaptive Sports and Recreation facility on West Grey in Houston, TX for the November 2015 election. / photo credit: Shelby Knowles

[gdlr_notification icon=”icon-external-link” type=”color-background” background=”#ffcc20″ color=”#ffffff”]This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2015/11/12/after-hero-loss-economic-impact-remains-unclear/[/gdlr_notification]

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Uber Preparing to Leave Houston if City Keeps Existing Rules

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[gdlr_notification icon=”fa-flag” type=”color-background” background=”#ffcc20″ color=”#000000″]This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune[/gdlr_notification]

Uber announced Wednesday that the company plans to cease operations in Houston if the city council does not repeal its existing regulations relating to vehicle-for-hire companies. 

Houston is one of two cities in the country where Uber continues to operate despite a local requirement that its drivers undergo fingerprint-based background checks. Uber has recently left three cities in Texas for approving similar regulations and has threatened to do the same in Austin

The company’s main competitor, Lyft, pulled out of Houston over a year ago in response to the new rules requiring its drivers to undergo fingerprint-based background checks. Uber had continued to operate in the city while publicly criticizing the regulation as burdensome. 

“We have worked hard and taken extraordinary steps to help guide drivers through the current process in Houston,” said Uber General Manager Sarfraz Maredia in a letter to Houston City Council on Wednesday. “However, a year and a half later, it is clear the regulations are simply not working for the people of this city.” 

Uber also released a report Wednesday on “The Cost of Houston’s Ridesharing Regulations.” The report claims Houston’s regulations have led to a decrease in Uber drivers and, in turn, “fewer safe rides.” 

“Since the regulations were adopted, more than 20,000 people in Houston have completed Uber’s thorough screening process but did not proceed with the City’s multi-step licensing process and as a result, were unable to drive,” Maredia wrote in the letter. “Houstonians who could most benefit from such flexible economic opportunities are often the ones who are least able to access them.” 

Houston’s ordinance requires vehicle-for-hire drivers to apply for a specialized license in order to operate within the city’s limits. This license includes a required fingerprint background check. 

Uber has recently ceased operations in Corpus Christi, Galveston and Midland after the cities adopted similar background check requirements. In Austin, voters will decide on May 7 if the city should adopt a proposed ordinance, strongly backed by Uber and Lyft, that would prevent the city from requiring such checks. 

Uber said the company will leave Austin if the ordinance is not adopted, despite recent reports from The Daily Dot that Uber has told drivers it will continue to operate in the city regardless of the outcome. 

Disclosure: Uber and Lyft have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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[gdlr_notification icon=”fa-camera” type=”color-background” background=”#999999″ color=”#ffffff”]Top image photo credit: Austin’s Prop 1 signs posted along University of Texas at Austin’s campus voting center on April 28, 2016. / photo credit: Shelby Knowles / Texas Tribune[/gdlr_notification]

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Bathroom Fears Flush Houston Discrimination Ordinance

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated throughout. 

Delivering a hit to the Texas gay rights movement, Houston voters on Tuesday resoundingly rejected an ordinance that would have established protections from discrimination for gay and transgender residents and several other classes. 

With 95 percent of votes counted, 61 percent of voters opposed the measure. The embattled ordinance, better known as HERO, would have made it illegal to discriminate against someone based on 15 different “protected characteristics,” including sex, race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity. 

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Supporters hoped the ordinance would align Houston with other major cities with similar measures in place. But opponents successfully attacked the measure with arguments about bathrooms. 

Dubbing it “the bathroom ordinance,” they argued the ordinance’s gender identity protection would allow sexual predators to enter women’s bathrooms. Outside of polling places, signs read “NO Men in Women’s Bathrooms.” And television ads bankrolled by opponents depicted a young girl being followed into a bathroom stall by a mysterious older man. 

Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, Republican state leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, cited the bathroom arguments in lending their political muscle to the campaign opposing the ordinance. On Tuesday, Patrick attributed the defeat of the “misguided” ordinance to voters standing up to “pandering to political correctness.” 

“The voters clearly understand that this proposition was never about equality – that is already the law,” Patrick said. “It was about allowing men to enter women’s restrooms and locker rooms — defying common sense and common decency.” 

Supporters of the ordinance called the strategy fear-mongering and hoped for a win even after early voting figures showed the ordinance behind by a wide margin. 

In a joint statement, the coalition of organizations that campaigned in support of the ordinance as part of the Houston Unites campaign, including Equality Texas, the ACLU of Texas and the Human Rights Campaign, said the fight for nondiscrimination measures was not over. 

“We’ve learned some important lessons, as well,” the statement read. “We have to continue sharing our stories so that more Houstonians know what HERO is really about and aren’t susceptible to the ugliest of smear campaigns run by the opposition.” 

Houston Mayor Annise Parker, whose 2009 election made her the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city, had warned before the vote that repealing the ordinance would be detrimental to Houston’s reputation as “a warm welcoming place that tolerates differences and respects diversity.” 

“Unfortunately, I fear that this will have stained Houston’s reputation as a tolerant, welcoming, global city,” Parker said after the vote. “And I absolutely fear that there will be a direct economic backlash as a result of this.” 

With the Houston vote garnering national attention, the loss for HERO supporters comes after a tumultuous year and half since the ordinance was first passed by the Houston City Council in May 2014. 

Almost immediately, conservative activists and pastors began collecting signatures to petition a referendum or repeal of the ordinance. City officials later ruled that they hadn’t collected enough signatures, prompting a lawsuit from the opponents. 

The ordinance had been in effect for about three months when it was put on hold as the legal challenge made its way through the courts. In April, a state district judge ruled in favor of the city, saying opponents of the ordinance had not gathered enough valid signatures. 

The case went to the Texas Supreme Court, which in July told the city council it had to consider a valid referendum petition and repeal the ordinance or put it up for public vote. 

As the first big LGBT fight since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June, the Houston vote could prove to be a referendum on the Texas gay rights movement, which has pivoted to discrimination protections since the Supreme Court win. 

HERO’s defeat on Tuesday makes Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, one of the largest metros without an ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Texas is one of 28 states without statewide laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Democrats’ inability to pass a statewide nondiscrimination measure out of the Republican-controlled Legislature has left the state with a patchwork of protections. 

Including the Houston council’s 2014 vote on HERO, nine Texas cities with populations of more than 100,000 had passed nondiscrimination rules or legislation. 

For at least a decade, Fort Worth, Dallas and Austin have counted among cities with ordinances offering LGBT residents some degree of protection against discrimination in employment, housing and other public areas such as buses and restaurants. San Antonio and Plano joined that list in 2014. 

At a watch party for the Campaign for Houston, which opposed the ordinance, Pastor Ed Young of Houston’s Second Baptist Church described the vote against HERO as a “moral issue” and not a vote on discrimination. 

“Everybody’s interpreted this as a political thing, and that’s not the perspective from which I come,” Young said. “This is beyond politics. Someone asked earlier if Houston would be perceived by the national press, and other cities, as a place that discriminates. You know this great city. That’s not who we are.” 

Jordan Rudner contributed to this report. 

[gdlr_icon type=”icon-camera-retro” size=”16px” color=”#999999″]TOP IMAGE: Houston Mayor Annise Parker after the Houston Unites election watch party for Proposition 1 on Nov. 3, 2015. Parker, who supported the proposition, said after voters rejected it: “Unfortunately, I fear that this will have stained Houston’s reputation as a tolerant, welcoming, global city.” / photo credit: Eric Kayne

[gdlr_notification icon=”icon-external-link” type=”color-background” background=”#ffcc20″ color=”#ffffff”]This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2015/11/03/houston-anti-discrimination-ordinance-early-voting/[/gdlr_notification]

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Houston Ordinance Vote is Test for LGBT Advocates

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For Lou Weaver, the fight to keep the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance on the books is personal. 

Weaver, a 45-year-old transgender man, has spent the last year working on the campaign supporting the city’s ordinance intended to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and several other classes from discrimination. 

“This is my life. This is my reality,” said Weaver, a transgender community organizer. “I’ve never experienced discrimination in a job or in housing because I’m trans, but that’s a very different reality than a lot of my friends experience. I want to know that I’m going to be safe in the future.” 

After months of heated campaigning, voters in the nation’s fourth-largest city are set to have the final word on the embattled nondiscrimination ordinance next Tuesday. In many ways, the vote is also the first referendum on the Texas gay rights movement since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June. 

First passed by the Houston City Council in May 2014 after intense public debate, the ordinance, better known as HERO, makes it illegal to discriminate against someone based on 15 different “protected characteristics,” including sex, race, marital status, religion and pregnancy. But it’s the sexual orientation and gender identity classifications that have become flashpoints for opponents. 

The ordinance took effect for about three months. Almost immediately, conservative activists and pastors began collecting signatures on petitions calling for a referendum or repeal. When city officials later ruled that they hadn’t collected enough signatures, the opponents sued. 

In July, the Texas Supreme Court settled the argument, telling the city council it had to consider a valid referendum petition and ordering the council to repeal the ordinance or put it up for public vote.  

The mayoral race was supposed to dominate Houston’s political sphere this fall, but the HERO referendum has stolen some of the spotlight. Both sides have poured millions of dollars into their campaigns, ads have filled Houston’s television and radio airwaves and political heavyweights have weighed in. 

The ordinance is on the ballot as Proposition 1 and would apply to discrimination in housing, public accommodations, city contracts, public and private employment and to businesses that serve the public. 

Led by Houston Mayor Annise Parker, ordinance proponents say it’s a local remedy to fight discrimination and would bring Houston — the biggest city in Texas — in line with dozens of states and major cities with similar measures in place. 

Opponents argue the ordinance imposes on business owners’ religious liberties and duplicates federal law. 

But for all that is at stake, the debate has largely been reduced to bathroom talk. Opponents argue that the gender identity protections would allow sexual predators to go into women’s bathrooms. 

“This allows biological males, including registered sex offenders, to go into female restrooms, locker rooms and shower rooms all under the protection of law,” said Jared Woodfill, co-chair of the Campaign for Houston, which opposes the measure. “We think that’s dangerous public policy, and our position from day one has been we’re not willing to sacrifice the safety of our wives, our daughters and our mothers at the altar of political correctness.” 

Ordinance supporters call that fear mongering. Parker, whose 2009 election made her the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city, said the ordinance’s language includes “best practices” from more than 200 cities across the country where public bathroom sexual predation hasn’t become an issue. 

“They want to try to target a misunderstood group of folks and pound away and incite fears,” Parker said of bathroom arguments. She added that repealing the ordinance would be detrimental to Houston’s reputation as “a warm welcoming place that tolerates differences and respects diversity.” 

Vote NO on Houston Prop 1

The City of Houston's Prop 1 would allow men into women's locker rooms and bathrooms. This defies common decency! I urge you to vote NO on Houston Prop 1.

Posted by Dan Patrick on Monday, October 19, 2015

At the start of early voting last week, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick blasted the ordinance and bankrolled a series of ads asking Houston residents to vote against it. Meanwhile, Julián Castro, the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, lent his approval of the ordinance to the Houston Unites campaign, which is pushing for voters to affirm it. 

With early voting set to wrap up on Friday, the ordinance’s fate remains uncertain. But most political observers agree that whoever wins, the margin of victory could be razor thin. 

Recent polls by Houston TV stations have found that HERO’s supporters have a slight lead, but almost one-fifth of voters remain undecided. 

Bob Stein, a Rice University political scientist who has been crunching early voting numbers, said turnout has been particularly high in African-American and white conservative precincts that would seem inclined to oppose the ordinance. 

The increase in black voters is likely due to the mayoral candidacy of longtime state Rep. Sylvester Turner, who holds ground with a reliable African-American base, Stein said, but the “Republican boxes are strongly against HERO.”   

“I’m inclined to think what was a close victory for the HERO people might become a defeat,” Stein said. 

While supporters remain confident voters will affirm the ordinance, losing the vote could be a major blow to Texas gay rights activists who say that nondiscrimination ordinances are the next frontier in their battle for LGBT people. 

Texas is one of 28 states without statewide laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and the Republican-controlled Legislature will almost certainly not enact any. 

That leaves gay rights advocates pushing for nondiscrimination measures at the local level, but those efforts have resulted in a patchwork of protections across the state. 

Including the Houston council’s 2014 vote on HERO, nine Texas cities with a population of more than 100,000 have passed nondiscrimination rules or legislation

For at least a decade, Fort Worth, Dallas and Austin have had ordinances offering LGBT residents some degree of protection against discrimination in employment, housing and other public areas like buses and restaurants. San Antonio and Plano joined that list in 2014. 

Despite the monthslong sparring, supporters and opponents of the nondiscrimination ordinance agree that the results of the election could have national implications. 

“Do I believe the eyes of the nation are on Houston, Texas, right now? Absolutely,” said Woodfill, adding that the referendum has already made it into the presidential election and could push forward similar campaigns in other areas of the country. 

For ordinance supporters, a loss could hand opponents the momentum to “turn back equality” or hold it back in other cities and states. 

“If they can win here and overturn an ordinance, what does that mean for the rest of Texas?” Weaver said. “Would they go systematically across and try to take away what San Antonio has accomplished? What Fort Worth, Plano, El Paso have accomplished? Would they move across the South?” 

Disclosure: Rice University was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2013. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here

[gdlr_icon type=”icon-camera-retro” size=”16px” color=”#999999″]TOP IMAGE: Prop 1 signs posted along the Adaptive Sports and Recreation facility on West Grey in Houston, TX for the November 2015 election. / photo credit: Shelby Knowles

[gdlr_notification icon=”icon-external-link” type=”color-background” background=”#ffcc20″ color=”#ffffff”]This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2015/10/28/houston-ordinance-vote-next-big-test-lgbt-advocate/[/gdlr_notification]

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