Texas Democrats Hesitant to Embrace Gay Candidate for Governor

Professor: Successful gay bar owner currently party's best option in race

Jeffrey Payne
Jeffrey Payne
October 14, 2017

A successful Dallas businessman pledging to spend in the seven figures out of his own bank account to run for governor in 2018 should be a great get for Texas Democrats. Yet the party doesn't seem to be getting behind Jeffrey Payne, whose business happens to be a gay bar.

Payne, owner of gay leather bar The Dallas Eagle and winner of both the international and Texas Mr. Leather competitions in 2009, officially launched his campaign this week saying, "There's no reason to think that someone who is gay can't do a job, and here it's being governor and representing people."

Democrats currently don't have a serious candidate challenging the state's Republican governor Greg Abbott next year—something the Associated Press described as a "new low"—but they are resistant to get behind Payne even though he is currently the best option.

"It's not a very high bar, we don't have even a C-list Democrat who's announced they're going to run for governor, but Payne is head and shoulders above everyone else," said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. "If we assume that he's being genuine in his proposal to spend in the seven-figures, that gives him a hundred times more financial resources than his closest rival."

A spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party did not directly respond to inquiries into its handling of Payne as a candidate, but did send the Washington Free Beacon a statement that says they are still awaiting announcements from "great leaders."

"The Texas Democratic Party is talking to a number of great leaders who are considering a run for governor, and we look forward to their announcements," said communications director Tariq Thowfeek. "These Texans come from diverse backgrounds with proven track records of leadership and an unwavering commitment to our shared Democratic values."

"There are over 27 million Texans, a majority of whom are looking for real leadership, not more of Greg Abbott's failed policies and hateful agenda," said Thowfeek. "Mr. Payne is one of those people."

Jones says the Democrats are in a "difficult" position with Payne, who he thinks has a good chance to win the party's primary next year.

"It's difficult for Democrats because on one hand the party elite is very progressive on LGBT issues and just spent an entire legislative session bashing Republicans for being homophobic, hateful, and discriminatory," Jones explained. "On the other hand there are the Democrats that worry about not just having a gay candidate, but a gay candidate who is best known in Dallas for owning the leading leather bar in the city and was Mr. Leather International in 2009."

The Democrats have no realistic shot at defeating Gov. Abbott in 2018, but are cognizant of the impact that the top of their ticket will have both on the lasting image of the party and on local races where they will be competitive.

"It's an image that some Democrats don't believe is helpful for winning the closer swing seats up for grabs in Texas," Jones said. "Payne at the top of the ticket could work against them."

"Even though they're not going to say it explicitly, that gives some Democrats pause," he said.

Texas Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke, running statewide for Senate in 2018, has stated his hopes that the party embrace a candidate for governor. One of the party's top choices, Rep. Joaquin Castro, recently took himself out of the running.

Meanwhile, Payne has been traveling throughout the state meeting with Democratic activists and establishing himself as the most serious candidate in the race.

"This Democratic primary will be a very low turnout affair, so Payne's strategy of meeting with various Democratic groups is a smart one," Jones said. "He'll meet with maybe fifty to a hundred activists, but if you do that multiple times in multiple cities it starts to add up."

"This guy is serious about campaigning," Jones said.

Payne, who chose not to be interviewed for this article, told the Dallas Morning News he doesn't think his sexual preference will have an impact on the race.

"There's no reason to think that someone who is gay can't do a job, and here it's being governor and representing people," Payne said. "I believe that the majority of Texans are going to sit back and say, 'I don't care that he's gay, what are his solutions?'"

Abbott was first elected in 2014 when he defeated Democrat Wendy Davis by nearly a million votes. Davis said this week that she plans to run for office again.

Democrats face a December deadline to find a different candidate.