November 4, 2015 / 8:47 PM / 4 years ago

Failure to woo minority voters helps tank Houston's 'bathroom ordinance'

(Reuters) - A failure to woo black and Hispanic voters is one reason Houston overwhelmingly rejected an anti-discrimination measure branded the “bathroom ordinance,” making it the only major U.S. city without broad protections seen as key to competing for business.

The proposition was put forward to shield people from racial, ethnic, gender and other discrimination. But the “no” campaign argued that the law would give men access to women’s bathrooms because transgender individuals would be allowed to use bathrooms matching their gender identity.

The measure failed by a vote of 61 percent to 39 percent in Tuesday’s election in a major blow to proponents including outgoing Mayor Annise Parker, who is openly gay.

Political experts said the wide margin implied that Democrats and voters with progressive values had crossed over to join social conservatives in voting against the ordinance.

“They didn’t fully engage all the voters. They never did control the message in the minority community,” said political consultant Marc Campos. “They never did engage in Spanish-language TV buying. I thought that was stupid.”

Houston is 25 percent African-American and 37 percent Hispanic, and blacks are generally overrepresented at the polls while Hispanics are underrepresented.

The language of the proposition banned discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy, genetic information, family and marital and military status.

The law applied to businesses that serve the public, private employers, housing and city contracting. More than 200 cities have such ordinances according to the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.

“The pro-campaign failed on a number of levels and I think that one of those failures was not reaching out to individual groups that were likely to vote against it, but who are extremely likely to vote,” said political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus at the University of Houston, referring to minority voters.

The ordinance was originally passed by the City Council in May 2014, but then faced a repeal effort and legal challenges. The Texas Supreme Court eventually told the city to repeal the law or to put it to the public for a vote.

Houston-based transgender activist Monica Roberts, who is black, wrote on her TransGriot blog that campaigners for the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO, passed over African-American communities and media.

“We pleaded for canvassing in our neighborhoods, pro-HERO ads on Houston black radio stations and hard-hitting attacks to destroy the only card our haters had to play in the bathroom meme,” Roberts said.

Mayor Parker, who championed the ordinance and rounded up support from national politicians and Hollywood figures, could still try to get a scaled-back measure passed by the City Council before she steps down at the end of her third and final term, Rottinghaus said.

There were no immediate threats of business boycotts. The National Football League said the vote will not affect its plans to host the 2017 Super Bowl in Houston, though it said its policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association said it would go ahead with the 2016 Final Four basketball tournament in Houston given years of planning, but would take into account all laws and ordinances in bidding for future events.

Rottinghaus and Campos said the city could lose business if it has a reputation as being intolerant, however.

“This puts Houston as an outlier. It is not just the case that they don’t have (an anti-discrimination ordinance). It is now the case that Houston has rejected one and that is meaningful,” Rottinghaus said.

Additional reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Tom Brown

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