Dallas gay bar owner runs for of­fice

Payne be­comes first Demo­crat to launch bid in race for gov­er­nor

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - CITY | STATE - By Mike Ward

DALLAS — The first re­ac­tion by many Tex­ans to Satur­day even­ing’s an­nounce­ment by Jef­frey Payne as the first of­fi­cially de­clared Demo­cratic can­di­date for Texas gov­er­nor is likely to be: “Who?”

But Payne, a busi­ness­man who owns a gay bar in Dallas among other ven­tures, is fo­cused on the “what.”

And what Payne sees be­fore him is the po­ten­tial for a Demo­cratic out­sider to fi­nally be­gin turn­ing the tide against Repub­li­cans in Texas pol­i­tics. He’s the first Demo­crat to of­fi­cially an­nounce for a spring pri­mary ex­pected to in­clude at least three can­di­dates.

He sees a lot of anti-in­cum­bent sen­ti­ment among Tex­ans fed up with what they see as dys­func­tion in Austin. He sees a lot of an­tiDon­ald Trump backlash. He also sees the po­ten­tial to rally the siz­able LGBT com­mu­nity in Texas to mo­bi­lize like never be­fore in the wake of con­tin­ued ef­forts to pass a bath­room bill. And he sees a lot of dis­en­chanted, dis­en­fran­chised Tex­ans who might be at­tracted to an out­sider promis­ing big change.

Even so, Payne’s chances of an up­set against pop­u­lar Repub­li­can in­cum­bent Gov. Greg Ab­bott are a long shot at best, in a state where Democrats have not won a statewide race in two decades — and where con­ser­va­tives still rail against gay men like Payne.

But in a year when the Repub­li­can Party is en­gaged in a civil war be­tween the tea party con­ser­va­tives in con­trol and mod­er­ates who think they have gone way too far right for most Tex­ans, Payne and his sup­port­ers in­sist a Novem­ber sur­prise is pos­si­ble.

“I am tired of pol­i­tics as usual in Texas,” said Payne, 49, mak­ing his first run for

pub­lic of­fice and fac­ing Ab­bott’s whop­ping $41 mil­lion in a race where he pledged to in­vest $2.5 mil­lion of his own money, with­out much of any likely party sup­port.

Party of­fi­cials have said they in­tend to se­lect an­other stan­dard-bearer, to be an­nounced later, per­haps be­fore the fil­ing pe­riod opens in early Novem­ber.

”We know it’s an up­hill bat­tle … in a deeply red state,” Payne said. “But a lot of Tex­ans are feel­ing like they’ve been left be­hind with the divisive pol­i­tics in Texas now. I be­lieve I can change that.”

‘Some good ideas’

Payne’s for­mal an­nounce­ment of his cam­paign at the con­ven­tion-packed Hy­att Re­gency Ho­tel proved a cu­rios­ity for pass­ing out-of-town foot­ball fans at the ho­tel and for Tex­ans alike. Sev­eral dozen sup­port­ers turned out.

“He has some good ideas, even though he’s a Demo­crat,” said Sha­reen Natali, 43, a Dallas busi­ness owner and mother of four who iden­ti­fied her­self as a “re­cov­er­ing Repub­li­can.”

“With all the dis­gust­ing things in Wash­ing­ton and Austin, I am in­creas­ingly think­ing both par­ties are the prob­lem,” she said.

Thom Ham­lin, a Dallas res­i­dent and pa­tron of Payne’s leather bar, The Ea­gle, who at­tended Satur­day’s rally, said Payne’s sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion shouldn’t be an is­sue, even though it will be.

“Fred Flint­stone and other Repub­li­cans may still be liv­ing in the Stone Age, but the rest of Texas is in the 21st cen­tury when be­ing gay is a who-cares topic for any­one un­der 40,” he said. “Gay mar­riage is le­gal. It’s time our pol­i­tics in Texas get with the pro­gram.”

Born in Maine, the son of a glass in­staller who soon left his mother for an­other woman, Payne moved to Louisiana with his fa­ther af­ter his mother com­mit­ted sui­cide when he was 3. He ended up in an or­phan­age in Rus­ton, La., and grew up there un­til he went into a foster home at age 15.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing with a de­gree in busi­ness from Louisiana Tech Univer­sity in Rus­ton, Payne moved to Lake Charles, where he op­er­ated a jew­elry store, and then to New Or­leans, where he even­tu­ally be­came a me­di­a­tor for the fed­eral Equal Em­ploy­ment Op­por­tu­nity Com­mis­sion.

When Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina in­un­dated the city in Au­gust 2005, Payne said he lost his house, his car and his job. “I had been to Texas be­fore, to Dallas, and I loved it, so I got a new car, and me and my two (dachs­hund) dogs came to Dallas,” he said.

‘Give for­ward’

He worked at a Dallas floor­ing com­pany and sold cell­phones for a time, even­tu­ally manag­ing the store. He also gained cred in the Dallas gay com­mu­nity, win­ning the ti­tle of In­ter­na­tional Mr. Leather con­test in 2009 — the equiv­a­lent of win­ning the Miss Amer­ica con­test in the gay com­mu­nity, he said.

“I looked a lot bet­ter then. Just like other con­tests, it had a for­mal-wear com­pe­ti­tion, an in­ter­view, a bathing suit con­test — one piece,” he said, ex­plain­ing that he likes to wear leather. But if elected, he quickly added, “I don’t plan to wear leather at the Capi­tol.”

By 2011, he was a part owner of a Dallas leather bar, The Ea­gle. He even­tu­ally bought out his part­ners and now also op­er­ates a court-re­port­ing com­pany, a cloth­ing store at the leather bar and a land de­vel­op­ment and re­lated prop­erty man­age­ment firm.

So why would a gay busi­ness­man want to run as a Demo­crat in con­ser­va­tive Texas, where tea-party Repub­li­cans rail against his sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and life­style.

And where Demo­cratic party of­fi­cials, he said, turned thumbs down on his can­di­dacy months ago.

“Miss Peggy was my house mother in the or­phan­age. She used to say no mat­ter how rough things are, you al­ways have to give for­ward. What you give for­ward is more im­por­tant than what you get in re­turn,” he said.

“That had ev­ery­thing to do with why I’m run­ning. I’m not happy with the di­rec­tion that this state is go­ing.”

To keep Repub­li­cans from bash­ing him be­cause he is gay, Payne said he made that part of his an­nounce­ment, when he filed pa­per­work in July to run.

“There are a group of peo­ple in Texas who will never vote for me, but there are a lot of peo­ple who want a gov­ern­ment that rep­re­sents their in­ter­ests, not just the in­ter­ests of some,” he said. A new ap­proach

His po­si­tions on var­i­ous is­sues are mostly pre­dictable: He sup­ports in­creased fund­ing for pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion, per­haps through higher taxes on busi­nesses to lessen the re­liance on toohigh prop­erty taxes; he’s pro-choice; op­poses the ban on sanc­tu­ary cities and sup­ports the Dream Act; op­poses Trump’s wall; and thinks leg­isla­tive redis­trict­ing should be in the hands of a cit­i­zen’s com­mis­sion.

But he’s also a staunch Sec­ond Amend­ment sup­porter — “I have a gun to pro­tect my home” — and sup­ports “cut­ting waste in gov­ern­ment” as a way to fund im­por­tant pro­grams, po­si­tions that sound Repub­li­can.

“I’m not a can­di­date who fits in a box,” he said, wear­ing an optimistic name tag that reads: “Your next gov­er­nor.” “But that box hasn’t worked for Democrats in Texas for 24 years. It’s time to think out­side that box.”

Payne

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