Seven Democrats have lined up to challenge nine-term Houston Republican congressman John Culberson in the November 2018 election, and LGBTQ issues could be front and center in the race.
“Congressman Culberson does not share the same values as most people in this community in terms of making sure that Houston continues to be a welcoming area,” Democratic candidate Alex Triantaphyllis told OutSmart recently. “We see that with respect to the way that he has rarely, if ever, taken a stand for the LGBT community.”
Culberson, who has held the seat since 2001, received a zero (the lowest possible score) on the Human Rights Campaign’s most recent Congressional Scorecard. His western-Harris County district covers several areas with significant LGBTQ populations, including Uptown, River Oaks, West University Place, and Bellaire.
In June 2015, Culberson issued a statement condemning the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in favor of nationwide marriage equality.
“I’m disappointed that the Court chose to override the will of Texans who define marriage as being between a man and a woman,” Culberson said. “The 10th Amendment guarantees states the primary responsibility of providing for public safety, public health, and public morality. Chief Justice Roberts correctly stated that marriage ‘has formed the basis of human society for millennia’ and it is my firm belief that states—not the federal government—have the constitutional right to define marriage.”
In April, Culberson was keynote speaker at the annual dinner of Log Cabin Republicans Houston, but he didn’t mention LGBTQ issues. Instead, he focused on the importance of avoiding another Democratic sweep of Harris County in 2018. For example, Culberson said the County needs to reelect GOP clerk Stan Stanart, who oversees elections, because if a Democrat wins the office, it will result in voter fraud.
After his speech, Culberson told OutSmart he didn’t touch on LGBTQ issues because they should be left up to states. He declined to answer follow-up questions, waving his hand dismissively before walking away from a reporter. Marco Roberts, president of Log Cabin Republicans Houston, maintains that Culberson has “evolved” on LGBTQ issues.
“I think the fact that he was willing not only to come to our organization, but to headline an event, speaks to his decision that it was the better choice to openly side with a gay-rights activist Republican group than not,” Roberts said.
The 7th District has been represented by a Republican since former president George H.W. Bush won the seat in 1967. But the Democratic Party is targeting the district in 2018 after presidential nominee Hillary Clinton carried it by 1 percentage point in 2016, while James Cargas captured over 43 percent of the vote in his race against Culberson.
As of October, the seven Democrats who will vie for the party’s nomination in the March primary had raised a combined total of more than $2 million. Culberson, who is also facing a GOP primary challenger, Houston businessman David Balat, had raised $649,813.
The Democratic District 7 candidates’ impressive fundraising totals appeared to reflect a surge in activism and grassroots organizing in response to Donald Trump’s presidency. According to the statistics-based website FiveThirtyEight.com, Culberson has voted in line with Trump’s positions 100 percent of the time in the current Congress.
“This is a very wealthy district, but 117,000 people out of 700,000 already do not have healthcare, and that’s lower than it was before the Affordable Care Act,” said Democratic District 7 candidate Laura Moser. “This is life-and-death for a lot of people living in this district.”
In the wake of Trump’s victory, Moser founded Daily Action, a text-message-based service with more than 300,000 subscribers that assigns people one progressive political task each day.
Daily Action is the type of grassroots mobilization tool that could be critical in 2018. With Democrats gunning to take back House and Senate majorities—and many moderate Republicans disillusioned with the party’s direction under Trump—voter turnout is expected to be key.
“A lot of people who are usually not engaged in politics are suddenly realizing how important it is to go out and vote, and that’s great,” said Cargas, who is again seeking the Democratic nomination in District 7. “It’s possible [that we will] see presidential turnout levels in a mid-term election.”
Other major issues in the District 7 race are likely to be climate change, immigration, and ethics.
Despite overwhelming scientific evidence, Culberson has said he does not believe in man-made climate change. In the wake of Tropical Storm Harvey in August, this issue is especially salient for Houston, which is especially vulnerable to severe weather.
On immigration, Culberson supports Trump’s border wall, and he has led a zealous fight to end so-called “sanctuary cities” by withholding federal funding from any localities that receive the designation.
“This is an issue that affects the safety of our entire community, because we’re all less safe if people aren’t reporting crimes because they’re worried their friend or family member might be deported simply because they called the police,” said Triantaphyllis, an executive at the community-development nonprofit BakerRipley.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Culberson has been at the center of an insider-trading scandal that began in January, when he purchased about $14,000 worth of stock in the little-known biotech company Innate Immunotherapeutics, which was developing a drug to treat multiple sclerosis. Culberson bought the stock on the Australian Exchange just one day after a price spike that triggered a formal inquiry from Australian regulators and an independent stockholder challenge.
In a statement, Culberson argued that he purchased the stock in response to a New York Times article about the company. He also said multiple sclerosis is a cause that resonates with him personally because of the death of a close friend from the disease.
The controversy heated up over the summer when Culberson sold his shares two weeks prior to the failure of the company’s only drug in a clinical trial, which caused the value of the stock to plummet by more than 90 percent.
“What [Culberson] may have done is criminal,” said Cargas, a City of Houston assistant attorney. “Unfortunately, this is a case where we may never get a full trial. Even if there’s no attorney general going after him, though, it’s important to let the voters know what kind of person they have [representing them].”
The other four Democrats seeking the party’s nomination in District 7 are attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher; Dr. Jason Westin, a researcher at MD Anderson Cancer Center; Joshua Butler, an administrator at the University of Texas Health Science Center; and Debra Kerner, an educator who served on the board of the Harris County Department of Education.