Conservative Dallas could elect an openly gay mayor if a longtime city council member wins a runoff election later this month.
Ed Oakley's candidacy is the latest indication that Dallas' reputation as a conservative stronghold is giving way to more diversity. The city is already home to several gay elected officials, including the sheriff.
"Dallas is less and less the Dallas that people think it is," said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. "And Dallas is less and less the Dallas that it used to be."
In the mayoral race, Oakley and former construction company CEO Tom Leppert emerged from a crowded 11-candidate field that included another openly gay man and a transgendered woman. Oakley and Leppert will be the only candidates in the June 16 runoff.
But if Oakley, 54, is on the edge of history, he does not talk about it. His sexuality has not figured prominently in the campaign. Oakley said his internal polling showed it had little impact on voters.
"I have never made this an issue, a part of what I am or who I am or what I have done to represent the community," said Oakley, a small business owner.
Dallas, with a population of 1.2 million, is home to a growing gay community with an estimated 120,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered households.
The city has nondiscrimination policies covering sexual orientation and gender identity and offers health insurance to the domestic partners of city employees, measures praised as progressive by local gay-rights activists.
"I think some people don't realize that Dallas is very diverse: economically, ethnically, culturally," said Pete Webb, president of the Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance.
That has helped mute any controversy about Oakley's sexuality in the state of Texas, where two years ago voters approved a ban on gay marriage by a 3-to-1 margin.
There also are other signals of political shifts. In November, Dallas County Democrats swept Republicans out of power, winning 42 judicial races and six countywide offices. Among the winners was District Attorney Craig Watkins, the first Democrat to hold the position in more than two decades.
The public has not seemed interested in Oakley's sexuality, but voters also have been uninterested in the election itself. Only about 13 percent of registered voters turned out in the initial election. Leppert received fewer than 20,000 votes and Oakley fewer than 15,000.
That has local gay activists hitting the pavement to support him. Jesse Garcia, president of the Stonewall Democrats of Dallas, said his group "has gone into our gay bars and stressed early voting."
"We are very excited," Garcia said. "We have ... to galvanize the troops and let them know not only can we make history but we can keep Dallas progressive."
The biggest U.S. city with an openly gay mayor is Providence, Rhode Island, where Mayor David N. Cicilline leads a city of 177,000. San Diego, with a population of about 1.2 million, briefly had an openly gay mayor in 2005, when a councilwoman was appointed to the position after a former mayor resigned and his interim replacement was convicted of corruption.
Oakley's supporters say the thrice-elected city council member has high name recognition among voters and a long history of involvement in city politics. He's been judged "as an incumbent member of the city council ... and not as a gay candidate," Jillson said.
"I'm not discounting Oakley based on who he likes or doesn't like, and I don't think people view him being gay as limiting to his ability to make decisions," said Mark Jones, a businessman who was having lunch with black professionals and church leaders in South Dallas. "This is not a town where homophobia will affect people's decisions."
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