What Went Wrong With HERO

HERO supporters gathered at Jackson Street BBQ Tuesday were overcome with grief after hearing the ordinance had lost by a wide margin.
HERO supporters gathered at Jackson Street BBQ Tuesday were overcome with grief after hearing the ordinance had lost by a wide margin.
Photo by Daniel Kramer

In the days since the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance was soundly voted down by a whopping 22-point margin, there has been a lot of talk about how fear and misinformation were the culprit behind the HERO's defeat at the polls. 

Pride Houston sent out a statement saying as much:

“The opponents of equality enacted a divisive campaign that allowed fear and misinformation to take root in the hearts and minds of many Houstonians and because of it simply never heard or learned the truth about H.E.R.O., a piece of legislation aimed at providing protection against discrimination for over a dozen groups. Houston now stands alone as the only major city, of its size, in the United States without a nondiscrimination ordinance.”

But past that rather pat explanation, there are a lot of questions about why the HERO campaign failed. After all, Houston is the city that elected Mayor Annise Parker. How did Houston go from that to voting down an ordinance that would have offered protections to 15 different groups of people that are at risk for discrimination because of worries over men being in women's bathrooms?

Of course, the actual reasons that HERO went down with such a resounding thud are a lot more complicated.

For one thing, the main coordinator of the pro-HERO campaign was Houston Unites, a coalition led by the Human Rights Campaign that set up shop in Houston shortly after the Texas Supreme Court ruled that HERO would be on the November ballot back in August. Houston Unites had lots of funding and 34 staffers on the ground in Houston working to promote the ordinance. But even though the coalition came in with a bunch of shiny credentials and money, it never hit back hard on the bathroom thing. In fact, Houston Unites never even ran an ad that would counter the claims that the ordinance would let men use women's restrooms, as Buzzfeed noted.

There's also a question of whether or not a national group parachuting in was the best way to approach this campaign. Houston Unites showed up in August and they left the day after the election. Chris Valdez, a native Houstonian who worked to support HERO says he won't criticize people who dropped everything and gave their time to come and promote HERO. But he does concede an organization with a more local feel might have made a difference. 

“You do have to wonder how quickly these people would be able to come in and understand the zeitgeist of our city, and the way we operate, and who the key players are and who you need to talk to get things done and how the whole thing works.”

Meanwhile, the anti-HERO faction was local and the conservative leaders already had strong ties with their target audiences. Valdez says that he noticed early on that while the opposition was organized and locking step, the HERO supporters didn't have the same kind of pull within their own target audiences.

“One of our greatest weaknesses is there's not an existing connecting infrastructure to bring all of these different groups with common interests together. I look at the Pastors Council and the impact they were able to make with relatively little effort on their part and then I look at the groups on the progressive side in Houston and we don't have something that binds us together the same way. I think that's the crucial missing component,” Valdez says.

Another issue was the relatively narrow focus of the campaign. Volunteer Eesha Pandit says HERO supporters made a mistake by allowing the issue to stay locked on just the LGBT view of things. “A one-note campaign about an anti-discrimination ordinance against LGBT Houstonians is insufficient. It should have been a broad-based campaign to protect the many vulnerable communities in Houston.”

Valdez decided early on that a broad view of HERO, one that would show voters all the ways the ordinance would affect all kinds of people, was the way to go. That was why he helped create the photo project "We Are Hero." "We decided early on that this was really a civil rights issue and that we needed to show people that," he says.

But the general focus of the HERO campaign stayed locked on the way LGBT groups would be affected without expanding to take other groups into account. "There are all kinds of racial and gender diversity in both the LGBT community and in other communities," Pandit says. "Missing that and failing to capture that kind of diversity was the difference between success and failure.”

Instead of working all the angles that could have been used to persuade the middle-of-the-road voters and to get pro-HERO voters to the polls to counter the conservative movement, there were a slew of missed opportunities. There was little Spanish-language outreach in a city that is 44 percent Hispanic, as the Huffington Post pointed out. Monica Roberts, an African-American and transgender activist, noted that there was little outreach to the black community, which makes up 24 percent of the city. Plus, nobody on the pro-HERO side seemed to utilize the angle that had the broadest appeal: That Houston would likely take an economic hit and might even face boycotts if the ordinance didn't pass.  

And that lack of outreach showed up clearly in the lead-up to the election. Attorney Kris Banks did some early volunteering for HERO before he got heavily involved in volunteer work for Democratic mayoral candidate Sylvester Turner. (Turner is now in a runoff election against Republican Bill King.) When Turner was out campaigning, Banks noticed that the questions Turner got from the audience, especially in the African-American community, indicated that there hadn't been much done to counteract the bathroom ads that urged people to vote down Proposition 1. “Clearly there were problems with persuasion,” Banks says. “Time was also a problem. In such a short period of time, it was easy to put a lie out there – to make this seem like an issue over bathrooms – but it takes a lot to counteract that, and it just didn't happen.”

And, as The Advocate pointed out, it's a dangerous mistake to try to spin HERO's defeat as a surprise. Political strategists warned that HERO could be defeated ages before it actually came to pass. And things were looking bad going into election day, with voters turning out for early voting in large numbers in conservative conclaves such as Kingwood, Memorial and Clear Lake, increasing the chances that the ordinance would fail.

In the days after the election, there was a lot of scolding from the national media and such – everyone from Seth Myers to The New York Times got their digs in – and lots of hand-wringing over HERO's defeat. "I looked at all the headlines that have come across my various screens in the past few days and think, 'Where were these people 72 hours ago, or two weeks ago?'“ Valdez says. “Why do we have to be looking back to finally see what was at stake now when it's too late to do anything about it?"

Banks has been fielding calls from people asking how they can help. “I tell them to go vote and to get ten of their friends to go vote. The candidates who supported HERO are still on the runoff ballot in December. There's still a way to support this in the polls,” Banks says.

Despite the defeat, Pandit says there's at least a chance to learn from what went wrong with the HERO campaign for next time. “The most effective messengers are those directly affected. They're the ones who are the most driven and who will be the most compelling to people,” Pandit says. “The opposition was organized and focused from the beginning. They've been working in those same communities, the conservative ones, communities of color, for years. You can't counter that kind of opposition and that level of organization with a wish and a prayer. We needed more.”

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