Houston Republicans fight reform, cling to past mistakes

In the second largest county party in the nation, Houston Republicans are fighting against a better future for the party. Photo: Barbara Bush / AP

HOUSTON, December 23, 2013 — The Republican Party is engaged in civil war. On one side is an old guard which has lost touch with the voters; on the other are reformers who want to appeal to a younger, more libertarian audience. Nowhere is the battle for the future of the party more intense than in Harris County, the second largest Republican county party in the nation.

Harris county has a huge Republican population and a powerful party organization, but while the local GOP is run by an aging cadre of social conservative political insiders, county politics is still dominated by Houston politics and the city’s  Democratic political machine. The Republican Party is losing relevance and losing support, and its leadership is fighting to resist change.   The county party leaders have tried to exclude younger Republican activists from becoming involved in the party, opposing their more libertarian ideas and weakening the party in the process. 

The primary election is in March. In a backlash against the Party establishment, hundreds of precinct chair seats are being contested by younger political activists who have until now been excluded from taking part in the county party. Incumbent Harris County Republican Chairman Jared Woodfill is being challenged by a reform oriented “liberty” Republican, Paul Simpson, who wants to make the party more relevant and more inclusive.

In the midst of this critical election to determine the future character of the Republican Party, Woodfill has apparently decided to take a quixotic stand on one of the most controversial and potentially dangerous issues he could in Houston. He has decided to challenge the city government over gay rights.

Houston is a city known for its prominent gay community in the Montrose area, for outspoken gay activism, and for being the first city in the United States to elect a lesbian mayor. There could be almost no worse environment in which to come out against gay rights, even if you’re a Republican.

In November, Mayor Annise Parker extended city employee health and life insurance benefits to same sex and unmarried couples. This did not involve any kind of legal recognition of gay marriage. It is just a rule allowing any city employee to designate a beneficiary without limiting those beneficiaries to legally married spouses.

Gay marriage is not legal in Texas and is prohibited under the state’s Defense of Marriage Act, but administrative policies extending partnership benefit rights to government employees have been passed in a number of other cities without successful legal challenge.

In the middle of his reelection campaign for party chairman, Woodfill has filed suit against the city to bar same-sex couples from this benefits program, standing up against the principle of equal protection under the law on which the Republican Party was founded. Citing potential violations of the state constitution, the Defense of Marriage Act and a city charter amendment passed in 2001, he was able to get a temporary injunction to prevent the implementation of the new policy, with a hearing set for January 6th.

In attacking the policy, Woodfill said that the city government decided to “thumb their nose at the will of the people and just spit on the US Constitution.” It is a strange claim as there is no mention in the Constitution of same sex marriage, insurance benefits, or anything even vaguely related to this case. The only relevant part of the Constitution would be the First and Fourteenth Amendments, which would seem to argue against Woodfill with their support for the idea of equal protection under the law.

At the hearing next month, the suit will almost certainly be thrown out, as has happened in other jurisdictions where similar challenges have been made. It is only an administrative policy, not a formal legal recognition of same sex relationships.

In an area with a powerful gay community, including an active chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, and at a time when the Republican Party is struggling to remain relevant and reach out to new constituencies, Woodfill’s crusade is ill considered. His actions are especially irresponsible during an election season when hundreds of Republican candidates are running for office in the region. These candidates may suffer at the polls for any negative publicity directed towards the party in general.

Polls indicate that Republicans under 40 and an even wider range of independent voters find a strong socially conservative agenda unappealing. While they may not want formal gay marriage to be legalized, a relaxed and tolerant attitude toward personal lifestyle and an opposition to government invasions of privacy seem to be very popular. 

Opposing gay rights may appeal to an aging and dwindling base group.  It may seem like a good campaign strategy for Woodfill as County Chairman, though he is probably mistaken. In an environment where the Democratic Party is committing millions of dollars in national campaign money to their “Battleground Texas” campaign to turn the state blue, it is a tactical blunder which undermines candidates in one of the most hotly contested areas in the state.

The electoral process is fickle, but for the good of the party, Woodfill ought to pay for his actions with his job.


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Dave Nalle

Dave Nalle has been writing political analysis since the 1980s for newspapers, magazines and now online journals. He is currently Execitive Director of the Center for Foreign Policy Priorities, is on the board of the Coalition to Reduce Spending, and served four years as National Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus.

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