Jeffrey Payne is a Dallas businessman and philanthropist who, two weeks ago, announced he will be loaning $2.5 million to his campaign for Texas governor. He is concerned that our incumbent Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is being irresponsible with taxpayers’ dollars. He is concerned about burdensome regulations on small businesses, underfunded public schools, and the state’s debt. Concerned enough that he’s willing to face down the herculean challenge that no Democrat has overcome in the past two decades: Win a statewide seat.
He’s a nontraditional candidate. He is not a native Texan. He claims no political experience. And, should he win the primary, Payne would be the first openly gay gubernatorial nominee from either major party in Texas history. Becoming governor of Texas is hardly easy and it’s absolutely not cheap. He’s up against an incumbent governor seeking his second term in a blood-red statehouse with a war chest filled with $43 million. Abbott also currently faces no credible primary opponent.
Payne, however, will likely have to get past that primary. He already faces one candidate, Thomas Wakely of San Antonio. In fact, Payne and Wakely may not be the only nominees. Filing does not begin until November, giving other candidates plenty of time to enter the race.
The state party, however, is not discounting Payne’s run.
“There are over 27 million Texans, a majority of whom are looking for real leadership, not more of Greg Abbott’s failed policies and hateful agenda. Mr. Payne is one of those people,” said Manny Garcia, the state party’s deputy executive director. “We trust Democratic primary voters will elect a nominee that is authentic, dynamic, and the kind of person that can get the job done.”
And, you know what, Sam Houston wasn’t even a native Texan. Payne got to Dallas in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina devastated his native New Orleans. He stayed. Dallas was already familiar to Payne, who was well known in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community. For the past 20 years he has been involved primarily in the leather scene, a special interest subgroup, known best for raising money for local LGBT and HIV/AIDS groups.
Many people, particularly voters, may not understand the group’s kinks. But he is not ashamed.
“It’s a community I support and I will always support. It says no matter where you are on the spectrum I support you. Own who you are, be proud of who you are,” Payne said.
He also earned some pretty big titles, including Mr. Leather International 2009. He went across the world talking about LGBT equality and fundraising for HIV/AIDS funds. When the opportunity arose in 2011, he bought The Eagle, Dallas’ premiere leather bar. He also founded the Sharon St. Cyr Fund, a non-profit providing hearing aids to LGBT people who cannot afford them. (Payne is hard of hearing.)
Payne is angry the state legislature is even considering the so-called bathroom bill, which would restrict bathroom access to transgender individuals in public spaces.
“When you have frivolous bills like the bathroom bill, why are we working on an issue that is not an issue? Why are we taking that time and energy and not working toward something that helps Texans, like education and immigration?” Payne asked.
The Texas Association of Business, the state’s largest business association, and other groups have pushed back against bills targeting the LGBT community, arguing that they are discriminatory and bad for the state’s economy. Payne agrees. A discriminatory bill would hurt a state known for its business-friendly environment, he contends.
He is also a critic of the margins tax on businesses making $1.1 million or more a year. Payne would like it eliminated, a sentiment shared by state Sen. Don Huffines, a libertarian-leaning Republican who has pushed for the outright abolition of the tax. Payne cautions an outright repeal, however.
“Any time you repeal or lessen a tax, you have to replace it or make a cut somewhere. To me, you just don’t throw out repeals or cutting taxes without saying how you’re going to replace it or make up for it,” Payne said.
If he becomes the party’s nominee, another businessman and Democrat may join him on the ballot. Houstonian Mike Collier is currently running unopposed against Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, one of the architects of the bathroom bill. The longtime Democratic activist was the 2014 Democratic nominee for Comptroller Republican Glenn Hegar, who is running for a second term.
Collier has name recognition among Democrats. Payne does not. According to the Texas Ethics Commission, Payne has not donated to a Democratic candidate. Zac Duffy, who is running for a state house seat currently held by Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, praised Payne for running.
“I am glad he’s running! We need new leaders who are interested in solving real problems and moving Texas forward,” Duffy wrote.
As Politico reported, Democrats nationwide are actively recruiting business executives with little to no previous experience in public office. The strategy is nothing new to Texas Democrats. But it has backfired in Texas in the past. In 2002, then-Republican Gov. Rick Perry defeated by 20 points the Democratic nominee, South Texas businessman Tony Sanchez.
But 2018 is not 2002.
“It’s been 25 years that [Republicans] have been in control, and we’re not better off. Not as a whole. I’m not talking one small group,” Payne said. “I’m talking all of Texas.”