Naked City

The Politics of Hate

Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, has revived the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act which will go before the state Senate next week.
Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, has revived the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act which will go before the state Senate next week. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Supporters of this year's incarnation of the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act expect the measure to win easy approval on Monday, Feb. 19, when it goes before the House Judicial Affairs Committee, which is chaired by the bill's sponsor, Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, and carries a 7-to-2 Democratic majority. Still, the bill's advocates are far from complacent. They say they intend to step up their efforts to get the hate crimes bill on the books in Texas, joining 42 other states that have passed similar laws.

Monday's hearing follows the Senate Criminal Justice Committee's 5-1 approval of the bill on Feb. 7, where Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, crossed party lines to support the legislation. The same committee, then with a 4-to-3 Republican majority, rejected the bill in 1999, in deference to George W. Bush's presidential bid and his opposition to the inclusion of gays and lesbians in hate crimes legislation.

What a difference a non-election year makes. Before the hearing, the bill's advocates had picked up signals from Ogden that he might support it, and his comments before casting his vote confirmed it. "From a conservative standpoint," he said, "I vote for criminal enhancements all the time." Of the two other Republicans on the Senate committee, Teel Bivins of Amarillo voted against, and Todd Staples of Palestine abstained, saying he needed more time to study the issues. Staples' East Texas district includes the town of Jasper, where James Byrd, an African-American, was tied to a pickup truck and dragged to his death by three white men.

The Senate committee hearing included testimony from Byrd's youngest sister, Louvon Harris, who told the senators: "My brother James … suffered a terrible, terrible death, simply because of hate; no other reason."

Jasper County District Attorney Guy James Gray, who prosecuted the case, testified in support of the bill, while dropping hints about his concern over the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the bill. And Travis County D.A. Ronnie Earle threw his full support behind the legislation. Neither the bill's Senate sponsor, Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, nor Thompson in the House, is expected to back down on the gay and lesbian issue. The two stood their ground on the same front in 1999, when the bill made it off the House floor with bipartisan support but was defeated in the Senate committee. This time, the full Senate will likely vote on the legislation before it goes to a House vote. Gov. Rick Perry said he'll stay out of the fight at this time, and will consider the legislation if it hits his desk.

While the Feb. 7 Senate hearing centered primarily on constitutional issues, Monday's hearing before the House committee will draw more testimony from victims, according to the Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. "The hearing will put a human face on the issues," LGRL executive director Dianne Hardy-Garcia said. She added she had no problem with the House bill's reference to "sexual preference" as opposed to "orientation." "Sexual preference was how it was worded last time and the House passed it," she said. "We can live with it; it's semantics."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, Senfronia Thompson, Steve Ogden, Teel Bivins, Todd Staples, Louvon Harris, Ronnie Earle, Dianne Hardy-Garcia, Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby of Texas, Rodney Ellis

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