In Election Night Loss, Austin City Council Candidate Sees Reason for Hope
By Forrest Milburn
Photography By Joshua Guenther (courtesy The Daily Texan)
A sea of hands shot up into the air on Election Night 2018 as the crowd of Democrats roared and cheered and hugged. For many, it was a triumphant moment: CNN had just called another Texas congressional race for the Democrats, inching the party closer to control in Washington.
Out in the crowd, Danielle Skidmore, a trans woman running for Austin City Council District 9, weaved in and out of pockets of supporters. She would stop to mingle for a little while, chatting about how things were looking for the party before looking up at the projector screen to hear more results come in. If the Democrats in the audience were upbeat and excited, Skidmore stood out as everything else — nervous, worried, somber.
She was preparing her concession speech.
The 2018 election on Tuesday catapulted a record number of women to federal and state office. But if the “pink wave,” as some called it, washed ashore, the “rainbow wave” — an unprecedented number of LGBTQ candidates around the country — failed to make landfall.
Skidmore was one of those candidates. She would have been the first openly transgender person elected to public office in Texas. Instead, incumbent council member Kathie Tovo held on with 53 percent of the vote to Skidmore’s 32 percent, just above the magic 50-percent number to avoid a December runoff.
“Change is hard — it doesn’t come easy,” Skidmore said during her concession speech late on Nov. 6. “It doesn’t come quickly, but we keep fighting for what we know and what we believe in. Austin is my home, and we’re not going anywhere.”
“We’re going to keep fighting,” she said.
It was a familiar theme for others like her around the country. Of all of the queer statewide candidates on their ballots, all of them Democrats, only two succeeded: Jared Polis of Colorado won his race for governor, becoming the first openly gay man to serve in that office in the country, and Kyrsten Sinema, a bisexual woman, was elected U.S. Senator in Arizona. Christine Hallquist, a trans woman, lost her gubernatorial bid in Vermont.
In Texas, Lupe Valdez, a lesbian and Latina candidate for governor, stood at the top of the Democratic statewide ticket, a major feat for the LGBTQ community despite losing, and Skidmore and other candidates lower on the ballot could have made history if they won their races. Some cracked a few glass ceilings on their own anyway.
Making history, win or lose
Last spring, Finnigan Jones traveled to the Capitol to testify twice in front of the state Senate, concerned with the body’s fixation on “where trans people do their business” instead of public education or health care.
What Jones, a 50-year-old trans man from Arlington, found was a group of representatives who seemed uninterested in what he had to say or how he felt.
“We fought as hard as we could,” Jones said. “But many of them wouldn’t even stop to talk to us when we tried to knock on their door.”
After the bill failed, his experience motivated him to run for office. He challenged incumbent state Rep. Tony Tinderholdt, R-Arlington, a conservative member of the state House of Representatives who allies himself with the chamber’s hard-right faction. Tinderholdt spearheaded other legislation that ticked off Jones on top of the bathroom bill, included one measure that would have made it legal to charge women who choose to undergo an abortion with murder. Both bills failed last session.
Jones made history early on, becoming the first trans man to win a primary for the state Legislature when Democratic voters selected him from a crowded field this spring.
On Election Day, he lost, 44 percent to Tinderholt’s 53 percent. But he came far closer to winning than any Democrat — or trans man — before him, especially in such a conservative district. That means something, he said.
“It’s harder to discriminate against somebody when you’re sitting having a conversation with them,” he added, “when they’re a state legislator just like you.”
‘Austin’s best asset’
Unlike Jones, Skidmore was different from most of the other LGBTQ candidates on the ballot in that she wasn’t challenging anyone for state or federal office. Instead, she ran where she felt she could have the most impact — locally.
For nearly two decades, Skidmore had served as a transportation engineer at firms such as Carter & Burgess and K Friese & Associates before quitting her job to run for public office. Her experience with infrastructure and transportation policy suited her well to solve the city’s “growing pains,” she said, particularly on mobility, traffic, sustainability and affordability.
“We need someone who will move us forward on these issues that affect all of us, building stronger communities that better fit where we are today and will grow with our city as it continues to evolve,” she said.
Austin voters, particularly those in District 9, which loops around downtown north to Hyde Park, have long worried about how the City Council and its leadership were addressing some of these challenges.
But Skidmore also campaigned on inclusivity, or what’s “long been Austin’s best asset.”
Skidmore ran with being trans as an important — yet miniscule — aspect of her identity, appealing to voters who want a council member who “runs for all.” Unlike Jones, Skidmore didn’t have to worry as much about running in a conservative area. In a year when Democrats were flocking to the polls in unprecedented numbers, voters in District 9 — one of the most liberal and wealthy parts of Austin — may choose someone innately more progressive than Tovo.
Or so she thought.
Just after 7 p.m. on Election Night, the early vote returns came in for Texas, showing Democrats up and down the ballot were running neck-and-neck with Republicans even in races where no one expected a competitive race. The returns for District 9 came in, too, showing Tovo just slightly ahead; but the 53-percent number didn’t budge.
Skidmore’s mood worsened throughout the night. After leaving her area of the watch party, a back table with pizza and candidate stickers surrounded by friends and family, she visited with supporters, holding back her worry as returns kept coming in showing her failing to close the gap. At about 9 p.m., when it was clear she was going to lose, Skidmore returned to her table and hugged her 17-year-old son Peter before he left for the night. Skidmore and Melissa, her ex-wife and best friend, are co-parents for Peter, a special-needs child who uses a wheelchair. He often tagged along with Skidmore when she went to campaign events and on blockwalk trips through neighborhoods.
“It’s really been an extraordinary honor to serve the people of Austin in this capacity, and I look forward to continuing to do so over the next four years,” Tovo said at her watch party at El Mercado in downtown Austin. “This is a very exciting time for the City of Austin, and it’s also a challenging one.”
For Skidmore, her identity was something she knew mattered — representation is, of course, important — but she couldn’t help but feel like it shouldn’t. She brought with her an expert outlook on transportation in her run for office, but the possibility of her being “the first” wasn’t lost on her.
Weeks before Election Day, Skidmore recalled knocking on a door in a neighborhood on the northside of the district, full of precincts that have backed Tovo in the past. The woman who opened the door seemed to resonate with her plans for the district, as she explained the intricacies of her transportation-heavy agenda.
The neighbor looked down, opened her mouth and stopped Skidmore.
She pointed to the pink, blue and white trans solidarity pin on her shirt, before smiling.
“You’re trans too.”
It’s the little moments, Skidmore said, that remind her of why she ran in the first place.
As the night ended, she walked off the stage into the pockets of supporters, lined up to thank her for running. She often came back to her close friends, at this point in tears, embracing them before returning to talk to more in the crowd. When asked what advice she has for young trans folks thinking about making a run for office, Skidmore acknowledged she paved a path forward in Austin and Texas — but she won’t be the last.
“I hope that they will,” she said, with the corners of her mouth stretching side-to-side in a big grin. She looked down, paused and added, “Representation is so important. But I hope that when they do run, their identity matters less in the race than the ideas and experience they bring to the table.”