Jared Woodfill was beaming as he bounced around the ballroom inside the Marriott on Westheimer Tuesday night, shouting updates to supporters as Election Day results started to roll in.
It didn’t take long for Woodfill to declare victory. Early election totals previewed the trouncing the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance ultimately took at the polls. “Houston has spoken loudly and clearly,” he said, flanked by some of the most die-hard conservative figures in state and local politics, like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Steve "Birth Control Pills Make Women Less Attractive" Hotze.
With 61 percent of Houstonians voting down HERO, Woodfill, the architect of the anti-HERO movement, hadn’t just killed the anti-discrimination ordinance. He’d buried it.
While Woodfill called it a victory for the people, who after a long legal battle had “earn[ed] the right to vote” on the ordinance, this week was a stunning political success for Woodfill himself.
Chairman of the Harris County Republican Party for more than a decade, Woodfill was among those who sought to be state GOP party chair after Steve Munisteri announced he’d resign from the post to be senior adviser to U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s presidential campaign earlier this year. Woodfill ultimately lost to Amarillo businessman Tom Mechler, but his role at the heart of the anti-HERO movement could very well catapult him to the position when Texas Republicans vote in a new party chair next year.
“Within Republican circles, [Woodfill] is going to receive the lion’s share of the credit for the landslide victory against HERO,” said Mark Jones, a political scientist and fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute. Or, as Scott Braddock, the astute political analyst behind the Quorum Report, put it in a Facebook post Tuesday night: "look for a boost for the campaign of Jared Woodfill for Republican Party of Texas Chairman. Social conservatives at the next RPT convention will see him as the 'Ajax Man' who cleaned up Houston's bathrooms. Not to be underestimated." (Check out Braddock's full post-mortem on the HERO vote here.)
Before stepping down, Munisteri, who ran the state Republican party for five years, pushed his party to walk the political tightrope of mobilizing the base without alienating potential swing voters, particularly when it came to outreach to the Latino community. It’s a tough task for the GOP in Texas, appeasing the anti-immigration fervor inside the party while also reaching out to Latinos.
It seems Woodfill managed to balance similar dynamics during the campaign to defeat HERO. Despite broad support for Democrats in Houston’s black communities, polling heading into Election Day showed black voters were the most likely to be undecided on the ordinance, which was championed by progressives and those in the business community, who are swayed by the economic arguments for passing HERO.
So Woodfill and the Campaign for Houston used fear, claiming protections for transgender Houstonians would trigger a public safety crisis in women’s restrooms. And it worked: As the Houston Chronicle reports, majority black City Council districts were among those that decidedly quashed HERO. Woodfill managed to spin the HERO vote in a way that both mobilized the base and expanded the tent to cover voting blocks that aren’t core Republican voters.
For Republicans, it shows Woodfill can harness a “public safety issue” to splinter some voting blocks that traditionally belong to the Democrats. And that he killed a law that would have benefited a group of people whose lifestyle offends hard-line conservatives will only make Woodfill a rockstar among the party’s base — the people that have literally made homophobia a part of the state party platform.
Jones at Rice says the anti-HERO campaign, under Woodfill, “was almost as disciplined as Republicans are on abortion.” It was under the guise of women’s health that the Republican-led legislature passed restrictions on abortion providers that threaten to shutter all but eight abortion clinics in the state — despite, as one federal judge put it, the “dearth of credible evidence” that the new restrictions would in any way make women safer. The dark irony there, of course, is that research shows the state’s omnibus anti-abortion law could actually endanger more women who do manage to get the procedure, due to an uptick in second-trimester abortions that researchers have blamed on increased wait times at clinics.
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Similarly, Woodfill claimed HERO’s defeat would protect women from a problem that simply doesn’t exist in any other city that has passed such a nondiscrimination ordinance.
It was a scare tactic, one that could perhaps be retooled to pick off swing voters needed to support hard-line conservative policies in other areas. Like, for instance, immigration, says University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus.
“Now you’re hearing about the so-called scourge of illegal immigrants committing crimes in these sanctuary cities, which is a pretty rare event,” he said. “It’s the same scare tactic…and the fact is that it works.”
It certainly worked for Woodfill when it came to defeating LGBT protections in a city that, just six years ago, elected the country’s first openly gay mayor of a major metropolitan area. Which means Woodfill might be just what the state party is looking for.