Election Day 2015: GOP Takes Kentucky, Ohio Rejects Pot Monopoly and Houston Shuns LGBT Equality

Tuesday was Election Day in the United States as voters across the country decided ballot initiatives and elected city and state leaders. In one of the most closely watched races, Tea Party favorite Matt Bevin won the governorship in Kentucky, becoming just the second Republican to hold the post in more than four decades. In Houston, Texas, voters repealed a City Council measure barring discrimination over factors including sexual orientation and gender identity. Opponents ran what critics called a fear-mongering and anti-LGBT campaign. In Ohio, voters rejected a measure that would have legalized marijuana for medical and recreational use. Many legalization advocates ended up opposing the effort because it called for giving wealthy investors who funded the campaign the exclusive rights to growing commercial marijuana in Ohio. In San Francisco, voters rejected a measure to limit short-term rentals, which would have restricted the website Airbnb. We discuss Tuesday’s election results with John Nichols, political writer for The Nation.


AMY GOODMAN: And now to the national state and local elections around the country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Tuesday was an off-year Election Day in the United States, falling between the 2014 midterms and the 2016 presidential campaign. The focus was local, with votes deciding ballot initiatives as well as city and state offices.

In one of the most closely watched races, tea party favorite Matt Bevin won the governor’s race in Kentucky, becoming just the second Republican to hold that post in more than four decades.

In Houston, Texas, voters repealed a City Council measure barring discrimination over factors including sexual orientation and gender identity. Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO, is modeled on similar laws nationwide intended to stop bias in housing, employment, business transactions and city contracts. Opponents ran what critics called a fear-mongering and anti-LGBT campaign. The pro-repeal side claimed that allowing transgender women in bathrooms could lead to attacks by sexual predators on women and girls, with ads declaring, quote, “No men in women’s bathrooms.” City officials have warned the city could face a backlash similar to the national uproar over Indiana’s so-called religious freedom law earlier this year.

Utah, meanwhile, saw a step forward on LGBT equality with the election of Jackie Biskupski as Salt Lake City’s first openly gay mayor.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile in Ohio, voters rejected a measure that would have legalized marijuana for medical and recreational use. But many legalization advocates actually opposed the effort over fears it would create a marijuana monopoly. The measure called for giving wealthy investors who funded the campaign the exclusive rights to growing commercial marijuana in Ohio. Voters also approved a second initiative banning the use of ballot measures for personal profit. Another Ohio measure to curb gerrymandering in drawing legislative districts was overwhelmingly approved.

And in San Francisco, voters rejected a measure to limit short-term rentals, which would have restricted the business of the home-sharing giant Airbnb.

In state races, Republicans kept control of the Virginia Senate despite millions in spending from a pro-gun-control advocacy group of billionaire Michael Bloomberg.

Meanwhile in New Jersey, voters ousted three Republican members of the state Assembly in a rebuke of governor and Republican presidential hopeful, Chris Christie.

For more on Tuesday’s off-year election results, we’re joined by John Nichols, political writer for The Nation.

John, let’s start in Kentucky. You have a Republican victory for the first time for governor in 40 years.

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, it’s not the first time. There was a Republican elected once over the last 40 years. But –

AMY GOODMAN: Second time.

JOHN NICHOLS: – you’re right that this is a – this is a remarkable win for the Republicans, and it ought not be underestimated. The key thing to understand here is that Matt Bevin, the winner of that election, was a – he’s a total outsider. He is a millionaire who a year ago challenged Mitch McConnell for the Senate nomination from the far right. He won his Republican gubernatorial nomination this year by only 83 votes. Everybody was saying, “You know, this guy is way too extreme, he’s way too far out, he says way too outrageous things.” He was sometimes referred to as Kentucky’s Donald Trump. And yet he won.

And this is an important thing to understand, in the state where Democrats have held their own at the state and local level up to this point. Democrats ran an incredibly cautious campaign against Bevin. They basically said, “Look, you know, he’s too extreme, he’s too out there. Vote for the status quo.” Bevin said he would change things, and he prevailed in a very low-turnout election – only about 30 percent. There are real lessons here for national Democrats. When you run cautious, when you don’t mobilize a high turnout, you don’t – you end up in a situation where somebody that you think would be easy to beat, you think is too extreme to win, could prevail. That’s a lesson for 2016.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: From what happened in Ohio, especially with the vote on the redistricting?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, that was a really good result. And I will say that while there is simply no doubt that Democrats had a bad night nationally on Tuesday, reformers actually had a very, very good night. In Ohio, there was a ballot initiative – a constitutional amendment to ban gerrymandering. It effectively said that if you pass this amendment, from here on out, district lines for the state Legislature will be drawn to be competitive. There will be restrictions on, you know, one party sort of setting up its own situation, essentially, drawing a map where because of a good election result in one year, you may be able to define the next 10 years. This is a really essential reform, because gerrymandering of legislative districts – and, frankly, of congressional districts – defines elections to a far greater extent even than money in politics. At the end of the day, if you draw a district that’s overwhelmingly to one side, it is unlikely to be competitive. So Ohio did a good thing.

But it’s important to note that Maine also passed a very good clean elections law that really beefed up their state financing systems as an alternative to big money. And Seattle appears to have passed in incredibly innovative public financing law that allows citizens to have vouchers that they then give to candidates, so that you actually have citizen-funded elections rather than big money-funded elections. So, if you look around the country, at the same time that very cautious Democrats are losing a lot of important races for them, you see reformers, people who are actually proposing big changes to a broken political system, winning.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of Seattle, Kshama Sawant, can you talk about the socialist city councilmember who was one of those who spearheaded a $15-an-hour minimum wage, was up for re-election?

JOHN NICHOLS: Yes, Kshama Sawant is running for re-election in Seattle. Now, Seattle has a early voting system and a mail voting system that leads to a situation where you don’t get all the results always on election night. You get a bunch of them. And the initial results from election night, in a very tough, very hard race, where she had a lot of money spent against her, she was winning 52 percent of the vote. Now, this does not guarantee that she wins, but it creates the likelihood. It certainly looks like a strong showing for her.

And that’s a big deal, because Kshama Sawant has been running for re-election on positions that are every bit as bold as what she did two years ago. Two years ago, she ran for the City Council as a proud, open socialist, saying that if she’s elected, she would fight like heck for a $15-an-hour wage. She did that. Now she’s back saying that she wants to fight for rent control, she wants to fight to tax the wealthiest people in Seattle, and she wants to fight for municipal broadband, to create a situation where we take the innovations of the digital age and make them freely, inexpensively available to all, rather than having, you know, all of the corporate overlay on it.

AMY GOODMAN: And it looks like the Seattle –

JOHN NICHOLS: Now, for that to happen in Seattle, that’s a big deal.

AMY GOODMAN: It looks like the Seattle City Council will become for the first time majority-female.

JOHN NICHOLS: Yes, and there’s a lot of progress as regards women getting elected in Seattle. There’s also a lot – Seattle is really one of the most interesting places in the country right now. They appear to have passed a massive funding initiative for pedestrian, bike, public transit, pouring huge amounts of money into alternatives to, you know, fossil fuels, looking for real environmental advancement there. King County looks to be passing a expansion of their oversight of the County Sheriff’s Department. It’s going to allow a lot more citizen involvement, citizen oversight. So you really do see a lot happening in Seattle that positions it as a very progressive city.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, John, the referendum in San Francisco involving Airbnb spending huge amounts of money to be able to continue their social sharing business model?

JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah, that was a, I think, very important referendum. And it was one of the first times where we’ve put this so-called gig economy, sharing economy, new economy, up to citizen oversight, to some sort of engagement by citizens to say, “How do we regulate this? How do we control it?” And the important thing to understand there is, Airbnb knew the stakes. They spent an estimated $8 million in an effort to prevent this initiative from being enacted. And they won. That should not be missed. But I do think that this is the beginning, not the end, of a lot of votes on these issues, because people are going to have to figure out some sort of structure to deal with this.

And remember, in San Francisco, the Airbnb vote was related to affordable housing, the idea that if you’re renting out your place all the time, you’re not going to make it available for somebody to rent it, you know, in a permanent way. And so, there are all sorts of housing issues involved with this Airbnb fight there. It’s a much more complex fight than a lot of the media coverage has given. And again, I would suggest to you that this isn’t the end of a debate over these issues, it’s probably the beginning.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Houston? Very significant development. Houston is the most fourth populous U.S. city. It rejected a measure that would have banned discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Explain what’s taken place.

JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah, it’s, frankly, a real rough result. In Houston, they enacted a very good piece of anti-discrimination legislation. It essentially wasn’t just for the LGBT community and – it was actually on a host of issues, saying there’s a long list of protected classes, folks that we are going to watch out for make sure that we don’t see discrimination on. And it was just commonsense. It’s not very different from what we’ve seen in a lot of other cities. But what you saw there was a brutal, brutal campaign – with, frankly, a lot of money – that in many ways reminded me of the fight in California some years back on some of the LGBT issues, where you had a lot of money come in very late for very negative advertising. And in a low-turnout election, they were able to prevail by a pretty big margin. This is a – clearly, in Houston, it’s a setback.

But in your setup, you folks were noting also the alternative result in Salt Lake City, where Jackie Biskupski – and we’re all learning to pronounce her name right – has been elected as the mayor there. And she was the first LGBT member of the Utah state Legislature. She now, as an out lesbian, is going to be the mayor of Salt Lake City. And so, we see these fits and starts across the country. But the Houston result is one that I think people are going to be – they’re going to be examining. And they should examine it, because it is a setback in a place where I think a lot of people thought that this could be a win.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, we want to thank you for being with us.

JOHN NICHOLS: A win for LGBT rights. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Political writer for The Nation, author of Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street and other books.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, it’s the first time in U.S. history – well, the largest release of prisoners in U.S. history, 6,000 prisoners released over the last three days. We’ll have a conversation about what happens next. Stay with us.