Slightly built, soft-spoken attorney Steve Mansfield, a Republican candidate for a seat on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, doesn't look like a guy prone to commit heroic acts of conscience. And standing before a recent assemblage of the Log Cabin Republicans, an organization of gay Republicans, Mansfield didn't. Instead, he explained that he was disavowing an endorsement by the Houston Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus because of political threats from unnamed conservative Republicans, even though, gee, he didn't feel too good about doing it.
"I have received a great deal of heat with regard to this endorsement," Mansfield told the 40 Log Cabineers gathered at Birraporetti's on West Gray. "My decision is a tactical decision. I felt I had no choice. I do feel bad about backing away." Mansfield explained that his decision hinged on the fact that he's in a statewide race and "those folks out there fear gays because they don't know gays." He went on to liken his political predicament to that of closeted gays trying to decide whether they should brave the social consequences of "coming out."
While Mansfield told the group he had received ten or so phone calls from anonymous Republicans demanding he renounce the endorsement, HGLPC President Terri Richardson says Mansfield told her the demands came from arch-conservative Steven Hotze and unnamed high-ranking state party officials (a statement Mansfield would not confirm). Neither Hotze nor a spokesman for Texas GOP Chairman Tom Pauken returned calls for comment.
Log Cabin president Kenneth Wilk says the group still plans to support Mansfield, just not as enthusiastically. "It's just his character," explains Wilk. "A lot of people can be pushed around. He was one of them. But he's a friend of our community and we have to reluctantly support him."
Richardson, who was in the audience for Mansfield's speech, was not so generous. She says it was "ridiculous" for Mansfield to liken his situation to that of a gay person. "Clearly he was trying to be friendly and sensitive to us in his own way," she says, "but it was apples and oranges."
Mansfield and two other Republican judicial hopefuls sought and received HGLPC endorsements this year. One of them, Cynthia Crowe, a county civil court-at-law candidate, preceded Mansfield to the lectern at the Log Cabin get-together and took a completely different stance. "I sought the endorsement and I'm proud of it," she declared. "I've been told to renounce it and I've refused."
Crowe wouldn't specify who asked her to drop the endorsement, but she said she wouldn't "let the right wing of the party control me or tell me what to do."
The other Republican who got the HGLPC nod, state district court hopeful David Jennings Willis, reports no efforts to get him to disavow it.
The caucus invites candidates to be "screened" for its endorsements before each primary and general election. While the bulk of its endorsements go to Democrats, mainly because the group is heavily liberal, GOP candidates occasionally receive its backing, particularly if a rival Democrat chooses not to seek the endorsement. This year, 50,000 cards listing the HGLPC endorsements will be printed and distributed to voters. Two GOP judges, Sharolyn Wood and Mike McSpadden, received endorsements in 1990. Wood repudiated it, but waited so long to do so that her name ended up listed on the caucus push card, allowing her to receive gay support while placating conservatives. Another GOP judicial candidate four years ago, Rick Brass, won the endorsement and was then targeted by Hotze and others in campaign handouts because he refused to renounce it. He lost in the GOP primary.
Caucus veteran Ray Hill says the religious right traditionally uses the HGLPC endorsements as a device to mobilize its voters. "In the last six years, Steven Hotze has printed on yellow paper a flier to be handed out at churches immediately preceding the election with 'These candidates have the endorsements of the perverts and these don't.' We fully expect that to happen this year."
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County GOP Chair Betsy Lake says she tells her candidates to go after all the endorsements they can get, but she warns that Hotze and the religious right will try to punish Republicans who accept the HGLPC endorsement. "It will backfire on [the candidates]," says Lake, through a "boycott" by ultraconservatives that will cost party nominees 40,000 votes on election day. Lake says most GOP hopefuls won't "touch [the HGLPC endorsement] because they don't want the wrath of the extreme right."
The desirability of the HGLPC endorsements also is being questioned by the Log Cabin Republicans, who are increasingly at odds with their more liberal counterparts within the caucus. At the same gathering where Mansfield and Crowe spoke, some Log Cabin members criticized the HGLPC's leftish tilt.
Wilk doesn't blame Republicans who shun the caucus, because "they're very liberal, very Democratic and very extreme. And Republicans don't really have a lot of use for them, to be quite honest." Log Cabin gays want to show other Republicans "we're not a Mardi Gras parade. That we're not deviant. That we're not looking for special rights. Mainly we want a fair shake, that's all."
The HGLPC's Richardson says Republican gays share some of the unpleasant tendencies of straight GOPers. "They do leftist bashing, Democrat bashing, and I don't think you'll ever hear that in an HGLPC meeting," she says. "I was particularly astounded that here there were two of their candidates in that room who have sought and received the endorsement of the caucus, one of whom stood up and said how proud she was to receive it. Then what followed was this tirade of caucus bashing. How did she feel?