HOUSTON -- Opponents of Mayor Annise Parker’s proposed Houston equal rights ordinance have vowed to take the issue to voters in a referendum, but now they’re seriously discussing a sort of nuclear option at the polling place: a recall election to remove her and some council members from office.
Although recalling the mayor wouldn’t be easy and the opposition would have to work quickly, the threat alone could cause problems for some city council members.
“This is absurd, it’s unheard of,” said Dave Wilson, a longtime anti-gay activist and critic of Parker who’s fighting the proposed ordinance. “It’s nothing but pure payback for the mayor. She’s paying back her core constituents that supported her.”
Houston’s city charter prescribes the criteria for which an elected official can be recalled – incompetence, misconduct, malfeasance or unfitness for office – but opponents argue the proposed ordinance contradicts state law.
“We consider them to be incompetent,” Wilson said.
The charter decrees that citizens have 30 days to gather enough signatures on petitions to mandate a recall election. The number of signatures required varies for each office, because it amounts to 25% of the number of voters who cast ballots for the elected official involved.
And that’s where it gets interesting. Since fewer people vote in district city council races, it’s much easier to gather enough signatures to trigger a recall election.
Look at the numbers. About 170,000 Houstonians voted for mayor in the last election, so opponents would have to gather about 42,500 signatures to recall Parker. Given only 30 days, that would be difficult.
But substantially fewer people vote in races for district council seats, which are more like neighborhood campaigns. If 10,000 ballots are cast in a council race, only 2,500 signatures are required to trigger a recall election.
“It would be tough to recall the mayor,” Wilson said. “And that’s why we’re looking at the other strategy. All we want to do is defeat this ordinance.”
“It does make council members pause and reconsider,” said Bob Stein, the Rice University political scientist and KHOU analyst. “I think it also shows that the mayor is weak in the eyes of at least somebody. And should this petition drive succeed, it might lessen her ability to push legislation through the council.”
Gathering petition signatures has become a sophisticated undertaking. Sometimes when politicos launch petition drives they hire people to gather signatures in public places, but that causes trouble because many signers turn out to be ineligible. Another method -- mailing petitions directly to targeted registered voters with return envelopes – has proven more reliable.
Parker’s proposal has stirred up an unlikely coalition of conservative whites who never cared much for the mayor anyway and African-American ministers offended by the notion that sexual orientation is a civil right. Church leaders have rallied outside City Hall in opposition to the ordinance, focusing largely on the idea that it would allow transgendered people to decide whether to use men’s or women’s restrooms.
A city council vote is scheduled for next Wednesday.