Flyer from Houston City Council candidate Cynthia Reyes-Revilla, which attacks Mario Castillo, criticized as ‘homophobic dog whistle’

The Houston LGBTQ+ Political Caucus and Reyes-Revilla endorser Adrian Garcia both condemned a Thursday mailer that shows Reyes-Revilla with her husband and two kids juxtaposed with a photo of Castillo and his husband. Reyes-Revilla says she supports the LGBTQ community.

Mario Castillo Cynthia Reyes-Revilla
Campaigns for Mario Castillo and Cynthia Reyes-Revilla
Mario Castillo, left, is facing Cynthia Reyes-Revilla, right, in a runoff election for the District H seat on the Houston City Council.

Some Houston voters might have received a campaign flyer that on the left shows Houston City Council candidate Cynthia Reyes-Revilla with her husband and two children. Underneath the photo she is described as a "devoted Christian" who makes decisions that "reflect the moral and ethical standards valued in our community."

On the right of the flyer – which was sent in a text message blast to District H voters on Thursday by Reyes-Revilla's election campaign – is a photo of her opponent in the Dec. 9 runoff, Mario Castillo, sitting with his husband. The wording below describes him as untrustworthy and "not a man of faith."

The campaign messaging has drawn criticism from Castillo's campaign and the Houston LGBTQ+ Political Caucus, which has endorsed Castillo. Austin Davis Ruiz, the president of the caucus, referred to the flyer as a "homophobic dog whistle" in a social media post.

In a Friday interview with Houston Public Media, Ruiz also called it "abhorrent" and "disgusting."

"It's really beneath her and beneath the office to stoop to this level and to try and get Latino voters in the district to vote for her via homophobia," Ruiz said. "It's just bewildering to me that this is happening in 2023."

Reyes-Revilla and Castillo, who was the leading vote-getter in the Nov. 7 general election by receiving 46.4% of the vote compared to 24.7% for Reyes-Revilla, are vying to succeed the term-limited Karla Cisneros in District H. The district largely consists of North Houston and also includes parts of East Houston, both of which are predominantly Hispanic.

Castillo and Nick Hellyar, who is in a runoff with Willie Davis for the at-large No. 2 position on the city council, are seeking to ensure Houston's governing body continues to have LGBTQ+ representation. Robert Gallegos of District I is the only openly gay member of the city council, and his second and final term is ending at the end of December.

Cynthia Reyes-Revilla Campaign Flyer
Campaign for Mario Castillo
This political flyer was distributed to District H voters in Houston by the campaign for candidate Cynthia Reyes-Revilla.

Reyes-Revilla, in a statement to Houston Public Media, acknowledged the message in question was sent by her campaign and said it was "intended as a comparison piece to share facts and information about the opponent and myself." She said she has been the "subject and target of many defamatory and untrue accusations by my opponent" and "felt it necessary to counter these attacks against me and the campaign."

"I am and have always been a supporter of the LGBTQ community and I am proud to say that half of my team and supporters are from this community," Reyes-Revilla added.

Grant Martin, a general consultant for Castillo's campaign, acknowledged that the runoff between his client and Reyes-Revilla has gotten heated as early voting continues through next Tuesday. Castillo's campaign has created a website dedicated to criticizing Reyes-Revilla, claiming she has violated election laws related to campaign financing, among other accusations.

Martin said claims made in the flyer distributed by the campaign for Reyes-Revilla are either false or mischaracterizations. He said Castillo is not an atheist, as suggested in the flyer, and that while Castillo was terminated as Cisneros' chief of staff, Martin said they parted amicably and because of philosophical differences. Martin also disputed the claim that Castillo was removed from the board of a local Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, saying Castillo's term merely expired and his work on the board was praised by outgoing Mayor Sylvester Turner, who makes board appointments.

Regarding the flyer photos that show the candidates with their respective families, Martin, who is gay, called it an "age-old tactic for gay-baiting."

"Bless her heart," he said of Reyes-Revilla.

Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University, said calling out sexual preferences in election campaigns has long been part of local politics. He also said he does not think the message distributed by Reyes-Revilla's campaign will have a significant impact in the runoff results.

Reyes-Revilla also ran for the District H seat in 2019 but failed to make a runoff, and then placed fourth in the Democratic primary in 2020 in the race for Texas House District 148. Among the endorsements she has received in this year's race are from Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, both Democrats.

Garcia addressed the Reyes-Revilla campaign message in a social media post Friday, saying the “hateful mailer” is an “affront to the LGBTQ+ community and I’ve urged Cynthia to apologize. She should be better than this.”

Castillo can claim more clout on his list of endorsers, which includes Turner, former Mayor Anisse Parker – the city's first openly gay mayor – Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Congresswomen Lizzie Fletcher and Syliva Garcia and state representatives Ann Johnson, Christina Morales and Penny Morales Shaw.

Ruiz said Reyes-Revilla sought the endorsement of the Houston LGBTQ+ Political Caucus, adding that being a member of the LGBTQ+ community is not a prerequisite to receive an endorsement from the group. Ruiz said he considers it a "slap in the face" that her campaign has now distributed a flyer he called "blatantly homophobic."

"People don't do this if they don't think it's going to work," said Stein, the Rice professor. "Will it make a difference? It might. But I don't think it's going to prevent Castillo from being elected."