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News 88.7/KHOU 11 News Poll: Economic Argument Could Make The Difference In HERO Vote

The campaign around Houston’s controversial equal rights ordinance is heating up: Ads are running on radio and TV, endorsements are being made and rallies being held.
But do Houstonians want to keep the law? Or make it go away? The latest News 88.7/KHOU 11 News poll shows they are split.


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The City Council passed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO, in May of last year, but a string of lawsuits is keeping it from being enforced.

The emotional and often personal battle most prominently played out between Mayor Annise Parker and a coalition of Houston-area pastors and social conservatives.

HERO protects 15 different classes from discrimination, including race, gender and sexual orientation.

On its face, that all sounds great. But let's look at the main argument against it.

A radio ad against HERO featuring an unidentified woman sums it up.

"This ordinance will allow men to freely go into women's bathroom, locker rooms and showers," the woman says. "That is filthy, that is disgusting and that is unsafe."

Although the ordinance doesn't specifically mention restrooms, opponents worry that sex offenders will pretend to be transgender and use the protection of gender identity as an excuse to go into women's facilities.

They point to some news reports from other cities where this has happened, including San Diego and Toronto.

Andy Taylor has represented the Houston Area Pastor Council in the legal battle against the ordinance. He was able to force the city to put it up for a referendum.

Taylor says HERO would put business owners in a difficult spot, because they could be slapped with up to $5,000 in fines for not respecting someone's gender identity.

"Eventually, you know what business owners are going to be faced with?" Taylor said. "They don't want to pick and choose which men can go in the restrooms for the women, because they might pick wrong, so they're just going to go to unisex restrooms and we're going to have men and women in restrooms together, and I don't think that's healthy for our society."

Taylor says the city should have explicitly exempted restrooms from the ordinance.

The law's backers dismiss that issue as ridiculous. They emphasize entering a bathroom with the intent to harass remains illegal under HERO.

Conservative Houston business leaders have come out in support of the ordinance – among them Ed Wulfe, chairman and CEO of the powerful commercial real estate agency Wulfe & Co.

"They raise one point," Wulfe says. "But it's a minor issue that can be dealt with and has been dealt with. The laws have been in place."

He says the equal rights ordinance is important for business in Houston.

That view is also shared by the Greater Houston Partnership, the Houston Association of Realtors, the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Hotel and the Lodging Association of Greater Houston.

Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Partnership, points to the enormous backlash when Indiana passed a law that was seen as allowing discrimination against gays and lesbians.

"Very quickly, I think, the city of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana realized that this is one of those issues that, frankly, if you're not open and inclusive and anti-discriminatory in your practices, it will have an immediate economic impact," Harvey says.

It's a message that resonates with Houstonians, but so does the one about the bathrooms.

Bob Stein, a political scientist at Rice University, conducted the News 88.7-KHOU 11 News election poll.

"We found the vote very close," he says. "Forty-three percent of voters support HERO, keeping it on as a city ordinance. Thirty-seven (percent) oppose it, 18 percent are undecided."

But Stein also asked those in favor if they would still support it if they knew it allows men who identify as women to use women's restrooms.

And he asked those against it if they would still oppose it if repeal would threaten the Super Bowl and conventions in Houston.

"Clearly, what we find is the economic argument of adopting or repealing the HERO, carried probably (a) seven to eight percentage point advantage," Stein says.

He says the side that does a better job getting its message out will likely win.

"And in the case of opponents, not only get their message out, but persuade people who wouldn't otherwise vote to show up," Stein says. "If turnout increases, I think HERO has a chance of being defeated. If it stays where it is and doesn't go much above 25 percent, I think it is likely to be sustained and upheld."

Stein notes that the poll was conducted before members of Houston's business elite came out in support, and according to the latest campaign finance reports, the pro-side has hundreds of thousands of dollars more on hand than the opposition.


An earlier version of this article misidentified Ed Wulfe.

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