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Leslie Loftis: New ways of spending a penny. Houston’s bid to enforce transgendered men on women’s loos goes down the pan

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The US elections were on Tuesday. Most big elections, local to federal, occur in even numbered years. Odd numbered years are ordinances, topic referendums, and a smattering of confirmation of appointees to vacated positions. In short, there aren’t many votes for the national news to cover in odd-ending years.

Houston, however, is an outlier. The fourth, or possibly third, largest city in the US, depending on how one counts the borders, and one of two poised to assume the role of the US’s most significant urban area, elects its mayor in odd numbered years. The past three elections that mayor has been Annise Parker, the first openly gay mayor of a major US city. (That isn’t her most distinguishing characteristic, but the one relevant to this piece on the now-infamous HERO law.)  She is term-limited and has filled her last term with attempts to raise her profile for her political future. She’s doled out many unnecessary construction projects, most notably public transit to nowhere, and manipulated some of the local tax laws to get funding for showy beautification projects.

But her big play was for the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, “HERO” to its supporters and the press and “HER Ordinance” to its detractors, which the media cover as a law about equality for transgender persons to use the public facilities of their preference.

Discussions of gender dominate much of US discourse and are likely to play in the upcoming presidential election. So Tuesday night saw heavy coverage of the Houston HERO vote, and its crushing defeat, 62/38.

Contra the maudlin New York Times editorial that the voters of Houston are now personally responsible for the next trans woman or man who commits suicide for feeling like an outsider, HERO was not actually about transgender persons in bathrooms. It was new shakedown opportunity for the City of Houston.

HERO provided local fines for discrimination. In addition to existing judicial remedies for civil rights violations, one could file a complaint with the city and someone would investigate and fine the business as the officials saw fit. When HERO passed City Council in spring of 2014, many Houstonians worried it would be another selectively enforced regulation. If you ran a not-preferred business, HERO gave city officials the option to drown your business in discrimination investigations and fines.

HERO is known as the bathroom provision, however, because the original bill had a clause specifically covering public conveniences (lavatories), and a good faith objection defence. Parker dropped that language to assure the City Council would pass the ordinance. But the good faith objection was dropped as well. So only the implication of bathrooms was left. Mayor Parker assured the transgender community the ordinance was stronger now that the objection was gone.

With all of the other gender discussion going on in the US, the media went with the bathroom theme for easy headlines. Until the law had to face the voters, the bathroom point was the publicity point.

Concerned about the rights and privacy concerns of organic women, some local leaders circulated a petition to put the ordinance up for a public referendum. The petition quickly gained enough signatures and everyone knew the regulation would not survive a vote.

While the bathroom issue might have been the sensational hook for the news, Houstonians notoriously resist governmental regulations of any sort. In fact, over the next few years, readers will hear about the City of Houston’s horrible finances, which likely will be spun as a repudiation of all of the powerhouse Houston economy articles of the past decade.

But there is a simple explanation for that. Houston has odd borders. The economic powerhouse everyone reads about is actually the greater Harris County area, which is run by a County Commission and Treasurer, all fiscal Republicans. (Full disclosure, I have worked for Orlando Sanchez, currently Harris County Treasure as a campaign and research advisor many times since 2001.) The City of Houston, on the other hand, has been run by Democratic mayors for decades and is on the brink of bankruptcy, in large part because excessive regulations have seen “Houston’s” major businesses and new residents set up outside the city’s borders. The city is broke and the Democrat administration’s solution was to pass a shakedown law to supplement the budget with fines on local non-PC businesses. (For more on those strategies, see Stella Morabito.)

HERO’s supporters had to insure that the new regulation did not get to the public for a vote. Since some of the objecting local leaders were pastors, the Parker Administration got the clever idea to try and invalidate signatures by claiming fraud and violation of church tax exemptions. That is, on to the concerns of a shakedown regulation and men in women’s restrooms, they added an attack on our First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.

Frankly, the surprise is that HERO managed to gain 38 per cent of the vote. But Parker is not giving up. In her last few months in office, she intends to make news. After all, she will need a new job soon.

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Leslie Loftis
Leslie Loftis
Leslie is a once and future American expat, most recently in London. She is also a lawyer and former local political campaign operative turned freelance writer. She currently lives in her hometown of Houston with her husband and their four children. Find her on twitter @AHLondonTX.

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