Texas may be gearing up for a repeat of the 2017 special elections in Virginia.
Last month, Democrat Danica Roem defeated Del. Bob Marshall, a Republican who had served in the House of Delegates for more than two decades, by nine points.
The contrast between the two candidates couldn’t have been more extreme: Marshall was one of the country’s most openly homophobic lawmakers, pushing an anti-trans bathroom bill to keep a “biological male” from “[showering] with the cheerleaders.” Roem, a journalist turned politician, is transgender. Her opponent refused to refer to her by female pronouns throughout the race.
Dallas may be set for a similar showdown. Openly gay attorney Mark Phariss, who fought the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, could face off against Angela Paxton, wife of one of the state’s biggest opponents of LGBTQ rights, in the 2018 election.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton gave county clerks permission to refuse to sign marriage licenses for gay couples following the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling legalizing same-sex unions. The Republican ignited a firestorm of controversy after posting that “a man reaps what he sows” in a tweet widely viewed as a response to the Pulse shooting in June 2016, in which 49 people were gunned down at a gay nightclub. (Note: He later deleted the post.)
Phariss, who announced his candidacy this week to represent District 8 in the State Senate, hopes to ride the same wave of support which saw Roem become America’s first openly transgender state lawmaker.
“If you look at Virginia and other special elections this year, there’s been a swing of 12 points on average toward the blue side,” the 57-year-old tells INTO in a phone interview, citing a recent FiveThirtyEight study on the 2017 Democratic surge. “Donald Trump only won this district by eight points in 2016. It’s definitely a winnable race.”
If Phariss is elected next November, it would be a history-making moment for the state: No openly gay politician has ever served in the Texas Senate.
He is one of two LGBTQ candidates running for the upper house of the state legislature. Fran Watsonwho married her partner, Kim, in 2014is running in District 17, which is located in the Houston area. Although the district is historically Democratic, Republican Bill Flores has held the seat since 2011. He was re-elected in 2016 with more than 60 percent of the vote.
Pharris believes it’s the right moment to shatter that glass ceiling.
“There are spokespeople in the Texas Senate for LGBTQ equality, but it’s time for there to be an LGBTQ person at the table in the Senate,” he claims. “They’re spending a lot of time on issues that are divisive and do not improve the lives of Texans one iota.”
The Texas Legislature introduced more than 20 bills targeting the LGBTQ community in 2017, most of which would have allowed county clerks, health care professionals, and wedding caterers to deny services to queer and transgender people on the basis of their “sincerely held religious beliefs.” One such bill, which allows foster care and adoption agencies to turn away same-sex couples, was signed into law.
Republicans in the legislature also attempted to force through legislation preventing transgender people from using bathrooms which correspond with their gender identity. That effort stalled numerous times, but the governor called a special session in July to strong arm its passage.
It failed again.
Phariss and Holmes believe these bills don’t reflect the values of their state. After the couple signed onto a lawsuit lobbying for the right to marry in 2013, they went to their lake house in Gun Barrel City, a small town located in East Texas where the major local attraction is a Denny’s. The city, which Trump won by 60 points last year, makes no effort to hide its conservative leanings: Its logo is two crossed pistols.
But the pair weren’t met with disdain or disgust when they arrived. Their neighbors greeted them with hugs, congratulating them and patting them on the back.
“I don’t think Texans care who I love or who I marry,” says Phariss, who has been with his partner for 20 years. “I think Texans care if their kids are getting a good education. Texans care if they have congested streets. They care about the day-to-day issues that affect them.”
“Our sense is that our leadership does not understand Texas,” he adds.
Holmes agrees things have changed in the Lone Star State five years after they initially sued to strike down a 2005 Constitutional amendment limiting marriages performing in the state to one man and one woman. That provision was approved with 76 percent of the vote at the time.
Over adecade before the same-sex marriage ban was approved, Texas governor Ann Richards, a Democrat, ran for reelection in 1994. Although Holmes calls her a “brilliant governor,” her bid was derailed by a whisper campaign suggesting that she was a lesbian. He says that the opposition distributed “leaflets and flyers… to damage her reputation.”
“If you were actually LGBTQ in Texas, it was difficult to get on a ballotlet alone be elected to office,” Holmes tells INTO.
“One of the reasons that tactic worked so well in the past is that LGBTQ people as a population was painted as being bad and demonic, wanting to recruit your kids and take over your schools,” he continues. “As people have grown to know members of the LGBTQ community, they learned that isn’t true.”
If last year was a turning point for the nation, the couple believes Texas can follow.
At least 40 queer and transgender candidates won their respective races in the 2017 special elections, a record number. In addition to Roem, the tally included Jenny Durkan, who will become the city’s first lesbian mayor. Two trans candidates, Andrea Jenkins and Phillipe Cunningham, were seated to the Minneapolis City Council. Jenkins, a social worker, is the first transgender woman to hold public office in U.S. history.
Even with a blue bump that carried these politicians to victory, Phariss faces an uphill battle in his district. Republican Van Taylor won District 8 with 79 percent of the vote in 2014, beating Libertarian Scott Jameson by 59 points. There was no Democrat in the race.
But Phariss says there’s been a palpable excitement around his candidacy.
The Democratic hopeful has been endorsed by State Sen. José Menéndez, State Rep. Celia Israel, and House Rep. Mary González. Jim Obergefell, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court’s 2015 marriage equality ruling, donated to Phariss’ campaign unsolicited, Phariss says. Both Obergefell and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro have offered to appear at fundraisers to mobilize support.
Phariss claims that he raised $30,000 in the first week after announcing. The campaign didn’t even have a website yet, he says.
“The support I’ve received so far has been more than I expected,” Phariss says. “It’s been humbling and even worrying. Everyone who gets out and urges their friends to vote me, everyone who gives a dollar, and everyone who is volunteering phone bank for me, I just know they’re putting their hopes on me, and I feel the burden.”
“It’s motivating me,” he adds. “It will make me work harder.”