With less than four weeks until the 2014 Primary Election and two weeks until early voting begins, candidates have been block walking and campaign ads have started showing up on television. Part of that process is garnering the endorsements of political organizations.
Some may wonder whether endorsements carry much weight with voters. There’s no real correlation between a victory and any given endorsement. Still, most candidates will make an effort to win endorsements. They might make a difference.
So it's no surprise that a majority of candidates seeking local office usually fill out mandatory questionnaires and attend the endorsement forum with the Stonewall Democrats of San Antonio (SDSA), an LGBT group affiliated with the Democratic Party.
More than half the candidates who attended this year's forum on Jan. 26 were judicial candidates in a crowded field of names recognized only by a few who will vote in the coming election. Candidates known only around the courthouse are looking for any advantage they can find, knowing most voters ignore the down-ballot races or make selections based more on party loyalty or guesswork rather than knowledge. There's even a phrase for the games voters play: "election lottery."
Spending a warm Sunday afternoon listening to a marathon of stump speeches for almost every office on the Democratic primary ballot wouldn’t be the first choice of many, but Stonewall Dems take this process seriously and most candidates know the drill. You come in, glad-hand the members before the meeting, pitch why you’re running for office when they call you, take a few questions, then exit and wait. The criteria for consideration are pretty simple: submit answers to the SDSA questionnaire and be nominated for endorsement by a member. Download a list of 2014 endorsements here.
But that questionnaire has been causing an issue for the organization’s endorsement process, with fewer and fewer of the big name candidates returning what amounts to a political true/false test. Stonewall recognizes the challenges the questionnaire has created in the past and its officers acknowledge the endorsement process will be reviewed in the coming months.
The questions are simple on the surface. Example: “Are you seeking the endorsement of Stonewall Democrats of San Antonio?” or, for federal candidates, “Will you co-sponsor ENDA (HR 1755/S815)?” But the implications behind answering yes or no often lead to bigger issues in the public space.
They indicate a candidate’s degree of willingness to work on LGBT issues. The problem is the arbitrary nature of the questionnaire and the process, a turnoff to those seeking major office.
A candidate with a strong record of support for LGBT issues would still be disqualified by the Stonewall Democrats for failure to submit a completed questionnaire. Such was the case in 2013 when SDSA decided not to endorse Mayor Julián Castro. In effect, the Stonewall Democrats chose to withdraw their active support for a mayor who supported many elements of their agenda simply because he chose not to play by their rules.
Castro was the first mayor of San Antonio to march in the Gay Pride Parade in 2009. He helped pass domestic partnership benefits for city employees in 2011, and he appointed a staff member as LGBT liaison. He also worked on passage of a non-discrimination ordinance the following year and co-authored an op-ed piece in USA Today in support of same-sex marriage.
But even with a record that eclipsed the work on LGBT issues of all prior mayors, Castro did not get the chapter's endorsement. SDSA decided those yes/no questions were more important than the mayor's record. The organization had the option to suspend its own rules, but the leadership decided not to take that action and the impact of that decision was felt, albeit not in favor of SDSA.
You might expect the leadership to have relaxed its own rules after that experience, perhaps examining the practices of other political groups across the state and country. Stonewall Austin requires a questionnaire for consideration, but Stonewall Dallas does not.
Now San Antonio's Stonewall Dems are seeing the same uneasy standoff play out in the governor's race. State Sen. Wendy Davis, Democratic candidate for governor, did not return a questionnaire to the group. A statement from her office said she was not answering any questionnaires by organizations across the state. The local chapter chose not to endorse her.
Stonewall San Antonio isn’t the only group dealing with the issue. Saturday, at the Houston LGBT Caucus endorsement meeting, a motion to suspend the rules and endorse Davis failed, resulting in a non-endorsement from the Caucus.
E-mails to the Davis campaign asking about the missing questionnaire went unanswered, but Eli Olivarez, Texas Stonewall Democrats president, issued a statement regarding the statewide organization’s support of Davis.
“Stonewall recognizes her commitment to equality,” said Olivares. “TSDC respects organizations and chapters having to uphold their rules, but the Texas Stonewall Democratic Caucus stands and supports Senator Wendy Davis because it is the right thing to do.”
In the end, after an attempt to suspend the rules failed, Davis received no endorsement from the San Antonio chapter, resulting in an immediate social media backlash against the group. Most members have pledged to vote for Davis despite the chapter's decision.
So do endorsements really matter? Even though SDSA did not endorse Mayor Castro, he still won with a sizable margin. Even after Sen. Davis failed to garner an official endorsement on Sunday, many said they would still be voting for her come next November.
Given the large field of relatively unknown judicial candidates, having a vetting process for the candidates makes sense for any interest group. However, Canon 5 of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits judicial candidates from disclosing too much about their opinions.
What really seems to matter are the actions candidates take throughout the year on particular issues. One solution would be to make the questionnaire optional. Another is to have a screening committee make selective endorsements in key races, instead of trying to endorse a candidate in every race on the ballot. As matters stand, even unopposed candidates must submit to the local chapter's endorsement gauntlet.
At the end of the day, their own rules prevent the Stonewall Dems in San Antonio from officially endorsing candidates that will best represent the group's interests. It’s just the way the game is played – for now.
Randy Bear is a 20-plus years San Antonio resident, transplanted from Little Rock to join the ranks of USAA in Information Technology. Over the last two decades, he’s been involved in a variety of civic and political activities, including work with San Antonio Sports, KLRN, Keep San Antonio Beautiful, Fiesta San Antonio, and a brief period serving on the staff of former City Councilman Reed Williams.