Annise Parker, Texas, 1997
Annise D. Parker
Born May 19, 1956
1.8 million constituents
Elected City Council Member-at-Large December 1997
Re-elected 1999, 2001
Elected City Controller 2003
Re-elected 2005, 2007
Essay by Annise Parker for Out and Elected in the USA
I knew there were no gay or lesbian potholes, no partisan way to pick up trash. About 58 percent of Houstonians agreed, electing me to my first term as an at-large City Council member, representing all the residents of America's fourth largest city. I defeated six opponents to become the city's first openly gay or lesbian elected official. I had been out for more than 25 years, and a gay activist for more than 20 years, when I was elected. In fact, I had been a public spokesperson for Houston's Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus and a community liaison to the police department. There was never a question of running "out," as I had never really been "in" since my teens.
Winning a race requires a reasonably qualified candidate, a good game plan, money, volunteers, timing and some luck – and the proportional impact of any component can vary. My race had a good mix. Conventional wisdom says that we can only win in progressive or liberal districts with high gay populations. That we can't win against the political establishment. And that successful candidates will be those who happen to be gay, rather than those who are publicly gay. Those are just three more stereotypes about us I've been happy to disprove.
I call my campaign a race of 9 months and 20 years. Eight months in the general election. A one month runoff. 20 years building a track record of civic involvement and a network of friends, contacts and supporters. I didn't start with success. I also ran citywide in a 1995 special election. In a six-week campaign I finished third of 19 candidates. But I learned from the experience.
One advantage of the longer campaign was the chance to better control my public image. It started the usual way: Every time I saw my name in print it looked like "lesbian" or "gay" was my last name. We met with the local media and made a simple request. "Gay activist" was what I did in my free time, but I was an oil company employee from 8 to 5. All my opponents were described by profession. We expected equal treatment. It worked. (From then on it took at least a paragraph before the issue cropped up.) Houston is a large media market, and I had nearly a million voters to reach; so we had a large TV ad budget. We made sure that voters saw and heard me as they ate their breakfast cereal. I was the candidate of reform and good government, with the implied promise of the same honesty in office as openness about my private life.
This was true coalition politics. I had incredible lesbian and transgendered volunteers. The bulk of my money was raised from gay men. Many conservatives voted for me because I was a longtime civic club officer, some because I worked for a conservative republican oilman. The police union endorsed me because they knew I understood their jobs, the African-American political establishment because they had worked with me to clean up the police department.
The experiences of running for office and of holding office are vastly different. I've worked hard, helped pass several important ordinances and provided first-rate constituent services to all Houstonians. I have not been seen as the "lesbian Council Member." But one of the most satisfying services my office provides is a safe place for our community to call with problems, especially ones involving the police or discrimination.
I enjoy my job and am excited to face each day. As chair of the Neighborhood Protection and Quality of Life Committee, I help set the agenda for neighborhood issues, the environment, parks, libraries and the Health Department. This is government closest to people's lives. But I feel an intense responsibility to be not only a good public servant, but also a role model for our community.
Most of the time, gay and lesbian issues, like many issues, are worked on behind the scenes. By having a seat at the table, I've been able to make sure that transgendered people are part of our non-discrimination policy and to point out that the city's nepotism rules ignore my life partner. However, I don't hesitate to speak out about hate crimes or police harassment in the press and at the Council table. We must always remember that we are a part of, not apart from, the larger society.