U.S. House candidate Lorie Burch, center, with her wife, Kimberly Kantor, left, and daughters

Candidates up and down the ballot stepped up and stepped out in Texas this year

DAVID TAFFET  |  Senior Staff Writer
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In North Texas, you did great,” Equality Texas CEO Chuck Smith said the success that LGBT candidates had in the midterm elections this year. Even those who didn’t win their races made huge inroads into the political arena for the LGBT community, and we celebrate the Lone Star Rainbow Wave by honoring those candidates for their efforts, naming them honorary LGBT Texans of the Year.

This year, Democrats came closer to winning and raised more money than ever before in the GOP stronghold of Collin County — and it was two LGBT candidates leading the way. In a Republican Tarrant County district, a trans man put on a very credible campaign for the state Legislature — one that didn’t revolve around bathroom bills. And in Dallas County, two lesbians were elected and will join returning incumbent Reps. Mary Gonzales, Celia Israel and newly-elected central Texan Erin Zweiner in Austin.

Smith said having 30 LGBT candidates who made it through the primaries and onto the November ballot around the state was an historic accomplishment. “I hope it’s a trend that continues,” he added.

Just to be part of the political conversation in Texas, Smith said, LGBT candidates must be elected at state and local levels to legislative, judicial and executive positions. Having five LGBT people in the Legislature will make a difference when negative legislation is introduced.

Julie Johnson was elected to the Legislature in a northwest Dallas County district, defeating bathroom bill author Matt Rinaldi in a sweet victory for the LGBT community. “Last session we wasted an inordinate amount of time on bullshit bathroom bill BS,” Smith said.

But, Smith said, Johnson wouldn’t have been elected if bathroom bills were her focus. She addressed real issues that affected people, centering her campaign on fully funding education to improve schools, which would result in a cut in local property taxes.

Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance President Patti Fink said Johnson is an incredibly successful attorney “who gets it about everyday people in one of the most diverse districts in the country.”

Jessica Gonzalez’s first run for office resulted in a surprise upset over incumbent Rep. Roberto Alonzo in the Democrat Primary, and she had no opposition in the general election. Some described her win as a battle between old guard and new guard. Others said she won because she simply worked that hard.

In the months before the election, Gonzalez knocked on doors throughout her Oak Cliff-Grand Prairie-Irving district, asking people for their vote and talking to them about their concerns.

“She won,” Fink said, “because she worked her ass off.”

Texas Senate candidate Mark Phariss, right, with his husband Vic Holmes

Finn Jones was the first trans man to run for the Texas Legislature, and he ran in a very red Tarrant County district. Still, Jones’ gender identity wasn’t an issue in the race, although he was open about who he was.

When the subject did come up during the campaign, Jones said, it was more in the context of people asking him where he stood on women’s issues. His answer was that he could relate to those issues personally — and they’d both laugh about it, he said.

Jones’ candidacy and his respectable showing in a conservative district — he won 44 percent of the vote against the incumbent, right-winger Tony Tinderholt, Libertarian Jessica Pallett — shows that trans candidates can run good campaigns in Texas, and in the future will win.

Mark Phariss raised more money and came in closer than any Democratic candidate ever has in Collin County. He ran for a state senate seat, and he won a majority of votes in the Dallas portion of the district, in Plano and in unincorporated portions of Collin County.

Phariss had a good showing throughout the district but lost McKinney by about the number of votes by which he lost the race. Angela Paxton, wife of the incumbent Texas attorney general, won, but only by 2 percentage points over Phariss.

As with most of the LGBT candidates running, Phariss was a first-time candidate who hasn’t decided whether he’ll run again — but he is not ruling it out.

Lorie Burch ran about as well as Phariss, and she raised about as much money as he did, in her bid for a U.S. congressional seat. The district is redder than Phariss’ state senate district because it doesn’t include any portions of blue Dallas County.

Burch did especially well among many of Collin County’s rapidly-growing number of Texas newcomers. She outperformed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign in the district: Clinton lost to Trump by 27 points in 2016, and Burch closed that gap against Republican Van Taylor by 17 points. To do that in just one election cycle, she said, is something “we really feel positive about.”

Burch said this week she now sees her loss as a “blessing in disguise,” because this first time around no one on her campaign had any real political experience, but this race did allow her to build a solid foundation for what she intends to be a future victory.

“There’s been a lot of lessons learned,” Burch said. “I would never say anything is easy, but we’d definitely have a strong shot at winning it all in 2020. At first, I didn’t think I would even contemplate running again. But the minute we saw the numbers coming in on Election Night, I couldn’t think of a reason I wouldn’t.”

Brandon Vance was one of two LGBT candidates who ran in a special election to fill a vacancy on the Dallas City Council. He called his experience fascinating.

“With 13 candidates, it turned into a positive race,” he said. “We all became friends.”

He said the campaign was “cordial and kind.” So kind, in fact, that eight of the candidates went out to dinner together after the election. And only scheduling prevented more of them from joining.

The seat will be up again in May, but Vance isn’t going to throw his hat in the ring that quickly. In January, he’ll start his term as president of Stonewall Democrats of Dallas, which will keep him busy.

Although he plans to run for office again, he hopes to run in a race where he had time to “put in the work to run a successful campaign.”

But as Smith said, we did very well in North Texas. In January, we’ll have more out lesbians from Dallas County serving in the legislature than some counties in Texas have out lesbians.

“This,” Burch said, “is how we change hearts and minds,” adding that “what changed this election cycle is that we did have candidates running. We had choices. And there was a concerted effort to get out the vote.”

With the success of these candidates, and that of other LGBT candidates around the state, Burch said, “All people who feel marginalized and un-represented will feel inspired to step up and run for office. We need to have a seat at the table. This is how we will get that seat.”

And that is why our Rainbow Wave candidates — those who won and those who didn’t — join Lupe Valdez as our LGBT Texans of the Year.