Why you should care
Because looming primaries are an early test for this movement.
A couple of years ago, Shannon McClendon fell out of a tree while using a chainsaw and broke her back, among other injuries. As she recuperated at home in Dripping Springs, Texas, she had time to reflect while watching the legislative session unfold from afar.
McClendon had long been an active Republican and a small-government conservative. She had been appointed by former Gov. Rick Perry to three state regulatory boards, and the attorney often participated in the legislative session. But she resented the power of the far religious right in state politics. Last year, when the Republican-dominated Legislature put a Band-Aid on school funding and tried to push through a bill to mandate people use restrooms corresponding to their birth gender — and her local state senator was one of the bathroom bill’s champions — McClendon lost her cool.
“It just riled me up enough to say, ‘I’m tired of sitting back and watching this and complaining that the process is happening,’” she says. “This is the tipping point, and I’m running.” She now spends her days chasing voters for a long-shot Republican primary challenge against the incumbent, Sen. Donna Campbell. Sometimes McClendon brings her wife along.
You cannot be surprised that the people who have the most to lose are standing up and saying: ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. Easy there, Donny.’
Gina Ortiz Jones, candidate for Congress
McClendon is one of a record number of LGBT candidates running across Texas this year — at least 49, according to a tally by Houston’s OutSmart magazine. The impetus is the so-called bathroom bill — which failed in the Republican-controlled Texas House after the business community lobbied hard against it — but also the rise of Donald Trump, who has inspired political newcomers on the left. Annise Parker, head of the Washington, D.C.–based Victory Fund, which backs LGBTQ candidates across the country, says there has been “exponential growth” in candidates as the gay community nationwide is responding to the times.
“We’ve been making really huge progress — steady progress — for years, and the Trump administration comes in and the federal progress comes to a screeching halt,” Parker says. “And at the same time, you have bathroom bills in places like North Carolina and Texas, and you have the [religious freedom] bills popping up,” she adds, referring to bills that strengthen individual religious liberty protections, but that critics say would give businesses permission to discriminate against gays. “They’re frustrated and anxious, and they’re putting themselves out there,” Parker says.
Or as San Antonio’s Gina Ortiz Jones, who is running for Congress, puts it: “You cannot be surprised that the people who have the most to lose are standing up and saying: ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. Easy there, Donny.’”
Texas’ March 6 primary provides an early test of the movement’s strength, but most of these candidates will probably lose. Many are political newcomers who have not raised much money, such as Mary Wilson, a pastor in the Austin area running for Congress. Some, like two gay Democratic gubernatorial candidates, are competing in the same race. Six are transgender. All but five are Democrats, according to the OutSmart tally.
The fact that so many are running at all is a sign of the changing political climate. Parker, who was the first openly gay mayor of a major city when she took over Houston in 2010, first started running for office in 1991. “Anytime I saw my name in print, it was ‘Annise Parker, lesbian activist running for City Council.’” Now, even the mayor of the tiny town of New Hope, Texas, transitioned from male to female while in office.
Victory Fund advises candidates to campaign on solving problems for everyone in their communities. Danica Roem, the transgender woman who made a national splash by winning a state House seat in Virginia last year, challenged the author of her state’s failed bathroom bill. But she won with relentless retail campaigning and a focus on traffic congestion.
Jones, an Air Force veteran who served under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” attacks Republican congressional incumbent Will Hurd for voting to block the military from paying for gender reassignment surgery. (The amendment failed.) But Jones is running primarily on issues like health care and schools — same as most any other candidate. “Nobody gets elected because they’re running as the out lesbian for anything,” Parker says.
McClendon’s challenge is particularly acute among the cultural conservatives in her district, which includes the suburbs of San Antonio and Austin, but also a lot of rural areas, such as where she lives. She passed up an open state House seat to try to make a bigger impact in the smaller Senate, but challenging an incumbent in a primary is always a long shot.
The reception has been “icy” at times, but McClendon trudges on, saying small-government conservatism should apply to the bedroom and the bathroom. Campbell has the backing of the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who counts Campbell among “those who have proven themselves to be conservatives of conviction.” McClendon hoped Texas’ big business lobby would support her, considering its opposition to the bathroom bill, but the PAC money has not arrived.
When McClendon, 57, first considered running for office 15 years ago, attitudes toward gays were quite different. A mentor told her: “Shannon, you’ve lost your mind. Republicans eat their young.” She did what she was advised and didn’t run. Now she’s courting a new generation of voters who aren’t so concerned about her personal life, and she has a stronger backbone — injury notwithstanding. “I’m no longer young, so they’re not allowed to eat me,” she says. “That’s the way I look at it.”