DALLAS (Reuters) - Is a city closely associated with cowboys, family values and social conservatism ready to make history by electing a man who is openly gay as mayor?
Dallas voters will answer that question on Saturday as they choose between Democratic party-endorsed gay candidate Ed Oakley and nonpartisan Tom Leppert in a run-off race to replace outgoing mayor Laura Miller.
If Oakley wins, he would become the first openly gay man to be elected mayor of a major U.S. city, according to the Gay and Lesbian Task Force, a Washington-based gay rights group.
“This race shows that being openly gay is becoming less and less of an issue to the electorate,” said Matt Foreman, executive director of the group.
A poll this week by the Dallas Morning News showed Leppert had a narrow lead — 47 percent of those polled versus 45 percent for Oakley. But the margin of error was 5.8 percent, meaning the race is too close to call.
At least one conservative group has mounted a phone campaign against Oakley based in part on his sexual orientation. But his strong showing says a lot about a city that defies outsiders’ stereotypes of Texas by boasting the world’s biggest gay church.
“The global and even national view of Dallas is still stuck on the Kennedy assassination and JR Ewing. The image is of a deeply conservative city,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
“But the city is much more cosmopolitan and while perhaps not exactly liberal is certainly more moderate than its reputation would suggest,” he told Reuters.
This moderation is underlined by the fact that neither Leppert nor Oakley, a city councilman, has made the Democrat’s sexual orientation or gay rights an issue in the campaign.
“He’s openly gay in the sense that he’s never denied it but he doesn’t make much about it, it’s not part of his public persona,” said Jillson.
Oakley has received endorsements from the Dallas Police Association among other groups and his campaign says he is focused on local issues such as crime.
“The top issues are crime and taxes, which you would expect. That’s what we are focusing on because that’s what people are interested in,” said Oakley campaign spokesman Craig Murphy.
Still, there has been a predictable stir in some quarters. This is Texas after all: the cradle of U.S. social conservatism, the heart of the Baptist Bible Belt and home of U.S. President George W. Bush.
Heritage Alliance PAC, a conservative activist group, says it made phone calls last Saturday to 50,000 Dallas homes to inform them about the high crime rates and school drop-out rates in Oakley’s district — and his sexual orientation.
“We did not feel that the majority of voters knew Ed Oakley was a homosexual and we felt we needed to alert voters to that,” said Heritage Alliance vice president Clare Jones.
Leppert’s campaign described the calls as “hateful” and said it did not want to be mistakenly associated with it.
“I have contacted (Heritage Alliance PAC) by phone and by email and asked them to stop the calls,” Leppert said on his Web site.
Jones says the calls were not spiteful and that their recorded message merely quoted a local newspaper as saying Oakley would be the first gay mayor of a large U.S. city.