Political Sex Change

Leslie Perez ran an insurgent campaign against then-Harris County Democratic Party chair Ken Bentsen Jr. in 1990 and was rewarded with one of the great garish headlines of all time by the Houston Chronicle: "Killer Transvestite in Runoff." Although future Congressman Bentsen eventually won the race, the strong showing by Perez garnered national publicity and severely embarrassed local party leaders.

Now Perez and her mother, Sylvia Ayres, have resigned from the Democratic Party, though there's a question of just how final Perez's break really is. Ayres, who over the years has also run for a number of municipal and Democratic party posts (most recently last November, when she pulled 37 percent of the vote against at-large Councilwoman Annise Parker), is actually switching to the Republican Party, citing family values as one of her reasons.

Perez was once better known as convicted murderer Leslie Douglas Ashley, before receiving a pardon and undergoing a sex change operation. Over the past decade she continued to run for the party post and forced Bentsen's successor, David Mincberg, into several more runoffs.

"I do have a kinda colorful background," understates Perez. "I do understand, because every time I run for something they bring everything up."

Unlike other high-profile defectors from county Democratic ranks, the departure of Perez and Ayres is not likely to provoke regrets or much hand-wringing from party officials, who regard them as major pains. County Democratic Party chair Sue Schechter, who defeated Ayres in 1998 to win the position, indicated the two will not be missed.

"What a great millennium present," she commented dryly.

The sentiment is returned in full by Ayres and Perez.

"It's just a total disaster down there," says Perez of the state of the local Democratic machine. "It's nothing from nothing."

"The party has a platform that no sane person could follow," wrote Ayres in a New Year's Eve letter to Schechter announcing her defection to the GOP. Considering that Ayres's onetime son and a female prostitute killed a Houston businessman and torched his body, Ayres seemed rather easily shocked by current Democratic lapses in morality.

"A president that is a total disgrace," sputtered Ayres. "Imagine being married, and having cigar sex with an intern. A party that both believes and promotes late-term abortion. Ms. Schechter, I can't follow that lead."

Ayres is swearing allegiance to a new political hero on the local scene. "I find that Republican Party Chair Mr. Gary Polland is a fine man and has the leadership qualities I can follow," she wrote. "My future energies will be to elect Republicans to public office, from the court house to the White House."

Polland was unavailable for comment on whether he and other GOP officials will welcome Ayres with open arms.

In her letter Ayres also took a swipe at the Democrats for promoting homosexuality, an odd position for a woman whose son/daughter underwent a sex change in 1980.

"I'm a strong believer in family values," wrote Ayers. "I don't embrace homosexuality. It seems the Democratic Party does." In a confusing passage, Ayers cited Democratic endorsements for "lesbianism, transgendered (transvites) bi-sexuals."

Schechter expresses surprise that Ayres would oppose the homosexual and transgendered community.

"It's strange to take a position against something that is at your own house," muses the chairwoman.

Perez's explanation of her mother's comments hardly clarifies the contradiction. "She's just saying homosexuality leads to death which is caused by AIDS."

Asked whether she considers herself homosexual, Perez issued a firm no. "I'm female -- I can't be but one or the other." Then she laughed. "I don't do anything. I'm a regular Virgin Mary."

The decision by Perez and Ayres to send their resignation letters was sparked by an attempt to oust Perez from her position as Democratic chair of Precinct 542. Ayres claimed someone put up a candidate to defeat her daughter and that Ayres filed as a candidate "to help my daughter, by splitting the vote, [but] I've decided that was a mistake."

While the Republicans will now have to deal with Ayres, Perez is not ruling out future involvement with the county Democratic party.

"I might come back," she warns. "It was a sinking ship, and it's a sunk ship now. I couldn't do worse than what they've done."

E-mail Tim Fleck at tim.fleck@houstonpress.com.

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