It was the so-called "bathroom bill" that was expected to drive voter turnout.
Why? The law aimed to extend civil rights protections in housing, employment and public facilities (in all senses of the term) to all Houstonians, regardless of race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy, genetic information, marital or military status, as well as sexuality and gender identity.
That's a long list, we know. But it's that final item that appears to have defeated the measure — or at least given opponents what they believe to be a matter worthy of public battle, along with language carefully crafted to assure defeat. In that completely modern way in which access to lots of information only seems to accelerate up the speed at which misinformation travels — and unproven, unprovable and straight-up conspiracy theories can be hard to distinguish from verified fact — Houston's Human Rights Ordinance (HERO for short) went down. Its opponents managed to pull public discussion about the law out of the realm of civil rights and into a murky world of religious liberty and possible threats posed by sexual predators.
Just less than 45 minutes after the polls closed Tuesday night, early voting totals showed that 62.5 percent of Houston residents voted to to repeal the law and 37.5 percent to sustain it. It was called for the opponents. And just consider what the primary spokesman for the forces working to defeat the bill had to say, as soon as the early voting results were in, according to the Houston Chronicle:
At opponents' watch party in the Galleria, campaign spokesman Jared Woodfill and others erupted in cheers as the early voting results were posted."It's going down," Woodfill said. " It's over. Our message worked."
Truer words have likely not been spoken in politics in quite some time.
A group of pastors gathered the signatures and initiated the court cases that landed the law on the ballot and made it subject to voter approval. When the city's legal team subpoenaed documents and e-mails from some of the pastors involved, in the team's efforts to defend the law and stifle a referendum in court, the pastors said the city had crossed the line and infringed on the practice of their faith. The state's Republican attorney general essentially agreed and directed the city to withdraw its legal request.
In the months that followed, those who opposed the law — including a group of pastors who brought the legal action and prompted the referendum, as well as one All-Star Houston Astros baseball player, Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott (R) and others — insisted in commercials, on television and in newspaper stories that allowing transgender women (individuals born male who identify as women) would leave women and girls suddenly vulnerable to attacks by crafty and now legally enabled sexual predators.
They told Houston voters that male sexual predators disguised as women (or as one ad put it, "troubled men") would find it easy to waltz right into a women's restroom to target victims. They said Houston voters who supported "freedom" and "safety" simply had to vote against HERO.
And, there were more menacing, live-action versions of these ads too. The words "ANY MAN ANYTIME" appear on an image of a women's restroom.
Similar claims were made in the fight to defeat a measure in Fayetteville, Ark., with similar results. In Arkansas, Michelle Duggar, reality TV star and mother of self-described sexual abuser Josh Duggar, recorded robocalls centered on the bathroom threat. We will not say more about the irony involved there. And, of course, irony is the nice word for what happened.
Back in Houston, the HERO law was actually in effect for three months before the legal challenges began. No evidence of said onslaught of sexual predators and gender identity tricksters ever surfaced — not in Houston or other cities. That's why a Houston Chronicle columnist called these phantom predators the bogeymen of the HERO fight and a straight-up scare tactic.
Some segments of Houston's business community also publicly urged Houstonians to vote to keep HERO in place. They warned that striking HERO off the books would leave Houston in the unenviable position of attracting national attention for being a large and unwelcoming city unconcerned with equal rights. (There is no federal law that specifically attends to the civil rights of LGBT individuals, but one has been proposed.) They said the city should expect conventions and other big businesses to boycott, things that would affect the city in a concrete way.
And they offered a toned-down response to the bogeyman argument in television ads, too. Democratic presidential contenders former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) tweeted about their support for Houston's HERO law. That, in turn, prompted a tweet from Abbott advising Houston to vote down HERO, support "Texas values" and reject Clinton ones.
In the days leading up to the vote, those who wanted to see HERO survive made more than 40,000 phone calls, the Houston Chronicle reported. And on Election Day, hundreds of volunteers knocked on doors and offered rides to the polls in what HERO supporters consider the city's HERO-friendly, liberal districts — the neighborhoods around Rice University and the University of Houston's campuses.
None of it appears to have helped.
This was a vote on a bathroom bill, a referendum on "Texas values." And on Tuesday, the people who figured out how to frame it just that way won.