Dallas gay bar owner runs for office
Payne becomes first Democrat to launch bid in race for governor
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.
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.”