Originally from Maine, Jeffrey Payne relocated to Louisiana at the young age of 3 after the death of his mother, Sharon St. Cyr. He grew up in an orphanage, going on to attend Louisiana Tech University and settling down in New Orleans, where he worked as a mediator for the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Hurricane Katrina, however, forced Payne to relocate, and he settled in Dallas, Texas-- the town he now calls home. Payne's resume also included working as a Human Resource Director for a Fortune 500 company. Today, 49-year old Payne is known as a successful businessman in Dallas, owning several establishments including the popular Dallas Eagle bar. Outside of The Lone Star State, Payne achieved even greater recognition as International Mr. Leather (IML) 2009. That envied title motivated Payne to to travel to five continents and 14 countries, in the name of representing one of the most diverse and lively segments of the worldwide LGBTQ community. Also in 2009, Payne founded the Sharon St. Cyr (SCC) Fund to bring awareness to the deaf and hearing-impaired populations. His dedication to community service, both in the LGBTQ community and beyond, has not wavered through the years. However, 2017 has seen Jeffrey Payne take on a new endeavor: politics. Payne became the first officially declared Democratic candidate for Texas, and he's prepared to take on Republican incumbent Governor Greg Abbott in 2018.
So far, the media is still finding the story of an openly gay man running for Governor of a deeply red state as a source of fascination. I asked Payne if he ever gets tired of being described as a "gay Leather bar owner", instead of just simply "business owner" or "community leader". He tells me:
There's more to me than being gay. There's more to me than having held a title. It's explained to people what that title was. Being International Mr. Leather enabled me for a year. I was traveling around the country and the world 50 out of those 53 weeks. I traveled the world twice over, and I experienced cultures throughout: South Africa, Djibouti, Europe, Canada, Australia... There's a difference between reading about a culture and actually being within that culture and learning their history and learning about their individuals. What an opportunity that was for me to be able to travel and to help organizations raise money for people in need-- in their own neck of the woods. I wish everybody had that chance to travel like I did. I was very fortunate in the travel I was able to do and with the people I was able to meet. When I go to community forums-- or 'town hall' meetings as some people call them-- or I go to meet and greets, people ask the question, 'What is this International Mr. Leather thing?' I explain it to them. They're like, 'Oh, OK... So what is your policy on education?'" He laughs, and continues, "So, once they understand what it is and what I did with the title, it's a non-issue. Just like my being gay and being married. They're like, 'Yeah OK, so you're gay... So, what is your policy on immigration?' When you're Governor, people want to know 'What are you going to do for us?' There's more to me than 'I'm a gay titleholder running for Governor.' I'm a businessman. To me, that should trump anything.
Currently touring Texas with his campaign crew, Jeffrey Payne took the time to speak to me about his political platform, his plans for the upcoming year, and what makes him proud to be a Texan!
JR: Hi Jeffrey. Thanks for speaking with me! Congratulations on your new endeavor. What motivated you to enter politics?
JP: To be upfront: I am tired of seeing what I'm seeing. I was angry at what was coming out of the Texas Governor's Mansion and what he was promoting. He was calling it "leadership". When you're Governor, you represent every single constituent that lives in the state of Texas-- not just the core people, and not just the ones who may be another donor. Everyone has to be represented, even the people you don't like or the people who may not agree with you. You represent them, and you have to bring everyone to the table when you're looking for solutions. You can't just bring your buddies, or people who are in your party. You have to reach across the aisle, and every single time... and then come to an agreement and come to an understanding. Even at the end of the day, you may differ on what your solution is compared to what other people's solutions are. But at least you walk away respecting one another. What we have right now in Texas is nothing but divisive policies. Our campaign is not here to divide this state. We're here to unite, so that we can all work towards a common goal. For example, when I look at the "bathroom bill", or at restricting women's access to healthcare, or restricting the general population's right to healthcare, or when I see education being severely underfunded, I know that this isn't what's best for Texas. Someone had to step up and say, "This is the direction that I believe in. This is the direction that we have to go in."... and then, actually go out there and make it happen. Many people have said, "Well, you don't have political experience." I get that. No, I didn't first run for City Council, then Mayor, then Senator, and then Governor. I'm not taking the traditional path. In the district I live in, I'm happy with my City Council person, I'm happy with my Mayor. As for the people who are running on the Democratic side for U.S. Senate and for Lieutenant Governor, there's no reason for me to run against them. We have the same core values. I thought, You know what? We need a guardian in the Governor's Mansion who's going to protect people's rights and protect people's way of living. We need to ensure that government doesn't get in the way of people achieving their personal goals. That's not what government is for. Government is to assist people in living and making their dreams become a reality, not to set up barriers. I saw barrier after barrier after barrier, and then said, "Enough is enough." I spoke with my spouse Sergio, and he is fully on board. You can't do something like this without the support of your family. He was 150% behind it and said, "Let's do this! You're the one who can make the difference!" And so, here we are!
JR: That's great to hear! So: People tend to label every state as either a "red state" or a "blue state". But as we all know, there are plenty of "blue" people living in red states and vice versa. Texas has the reputation for being largely Republican and conservative... so how do you feel when people try and discourage you, saying things like, "You're an openly gay man running for office in a red state. You don't have a chance." What would you tell them?
JP: First off, we need to look at the percentage of people who vote in "off years". It's very low-- anywhere from 28 to 31% of eligible registered voters. I don't believe that our state is a "red state" so much as we're a non-voting state. That's where our campaign is concentrating on. It's about getting people out to vote, to finally step up and make the decision based upon what their goals are in life. I believe that when they see where we're coming from, and what our agenda is, and what our platforms and policies are, then they will step up and vote. We plan on having a very large turnout this time. We have to get people to the polls. That's what we're concentrating on. I believe that when people get to the polls, we will win. I was asked earlier if my campaign was just to "make a statement", and would I then just go back to my businesses? No! This is not just to make a statement. It's to make a statement... and then to become Governor! We believe we have a path. Our team has put a path together to go all the way to Austin next November.
JR: (Laughs) I have to laugh at that: "Are you doing this just to make a statement?" I can't imagine anyone in their right mind embarking on something that requires 24/7 mental, physical, and financial commitment-- not only their own commitment, but also that of their loved ones-- for well over a year just to "make a statement"!
JP: I could make a statement a lot more cheaply by buying a newspaper ad in every single newspaper across Texas. It would be cheaper and quicker than running for Governor. Plus, I wouldn't put my family and friends and the people I know up for such, for lack of a better term, "critical analysis" just to "make a statement". We're doing this because we truly believe there is a better path for Texas, and that's what we're working for: to get our message out there, and to get people to vote. We will be victorious in November.
JR: Do you think people can ever get over the gay issue?
JP: Twelve years ago, I came here to Dallas after Hurricane Katrina. I literally had only my car, two dogs, a few belongings, and $2000. And now, I have five thriving businesses. I have employees. I pay my taxes like I'm supposed to. So, I'm adding to the stability of the economy. To me, that's what people should be concentrating on. Who cares who I'm going home to, to sit across the dining room table from and say, "So, how was your day?" It's legal now to be married. It's a non-issue. I'm finding out more and more, as we get out there, that people really don't care about that. What they care about is, "What are you going to be able to do for us?" "What do you WANT to be able to do for us?"... and "How are you going to lead this state?"... That's what they want to know. Yes, Texas is considered a very conservative state. We're considered "deep red". Call it what you may. Yes, Jeffrey Payne is the first openly gay candidate to run for Governor. I understand that that's newsworthy. Don't get me wrong. But I also think that it expresses how far we've come in society that I can do this and not feel like someone's gonna be waiting behind the corner for me. So, we've made so much progress in society that I would even have the opportunity to run as an openly gay man. I think that speaks a lot for our society. But sometimes I do get tired of being pigeonholed into being called " a gay titleholder running for Governor" and not "a businessman running for Governor". There's more to me! (Laughs) When we announced that I was running, I came right out with everything. I wanted people to know that I was being upfront with them. Yes, I'm gay. Yes, I am married to a man. Yes, I was International Mr. Leather. So know we have the "newsworthy" things out of the way. I've had some people tell me, "Oh, you haven't been real involved in politics." I say, no, but I've been very involved where I thought it was important-- with philanthropy work-- and making sure that money was raised for people who need housing, and medication, and food, and hearing aids, and equal access to all those things. So, I may not have the political experience behind me, but I do have the business sense behind me, and doing good work for others behind me. I warn people not to look at others only by what they say on the campaign trail. Don't just start looking at me from June or July when I first announced. Ask, "What has he done in those 49 years?" Because that's what you're gonna get when you elect me your Governor. I think it's important that you look at a person's entire life. Have I been perfect? Oh, heck no. But I've never done anything illegal. I wouldn't trade a single minute of my life, because it's got me to the point I am now. We all make mistakes. No one's perfect. But as long as you learn from them, then you can move forward!
JR: I have not yet been to Texas, but I did my research! Texas is the second most populous state in our country. It's a very diverse population with wide variations in wealth, and with large populations in both urban and rural areas alike. Also, there are up to two million undocumented immigrants living in the state. Being Governor means understanding the needs of all the people in the state. What steps will you take to, shall we say, "get to know" the population?
JP: In many ways, we already have. Once I announced, we started traveling around the state. We are doing that now as well: not just the big cities, but also the small towns, and even in the deeply red counties. We are not going to shy away from an area simply because they usually vote Republican. I believe that our message is universal, and I believe that people want to hear it. They have an open mind. That's why we're going everywhere, from the big cities to the small towns. It's a seven week tour. Once to get to January, we have an eight-week tour leading up to the primary, which is March 6th. We're hitting every town we can. In some of these towns, there might not be enough people to have a community forum. We will go to the town square if they have one, and we're gonna walk around and introduce ourselves and teach people about the issues, and let people know that this is literally what you're going to get-- and that I do care about the welfare of the people of Texas. Just yesterday, I had a guy come in and he said, "Just so you know, I'm voting for your opponent." I said, "That's fine. I'm just glad you're voting." It's true. He's voting for Abbott. I get that. But I did say, "I would like some time with you... just so you can hear what our issues are, and what our platforms and policies are." And he goes, "You know what? Because you asked, I'll give you that time." So, we're meeting up in the future. And that's what we have to do. I believe that people want to listen. He may stand up and go, "I'm still gonna vote for Abbott." I'll say, "Well, thank you for your time then." But that's what we have to do to reach out to as many people as possible. I'll speak to anyone who will listen. Our goal is to raise the voting rate, and to raise it significantly. This is the time. You need to exercise your right to vote. I want to see one of the largest turnouts in a non-Presidential year.
JR: How has the reception been so far?
JP: So far, people are very receptive to our campaign. That's what we're excited about. People are listening. As I mentioned before, once they get beyond the gay thing and they learn what IML is, they ask about the issues. And that's the moment I know they're listening!
JR: That's great to hear! So, what issues does Texas have that are unique from other states?
JP: I don't know how unique it is from other states, but I know that lack of funding for education is one issue. Immigration is another. At the end of the day, immigration it's a federal issue. It's not as if the Governor can say "This is how we're gonna handle immigration." That has to come from a higher level. But that doesn't mean that the Governor can't work with our U.S. Congressmen to actually formulate a compassionate and solid immigration policy. We have the longest border with Mexico than any other state. It does need to be secure. I honestly believe that. But I don't think that "the wall" is the answer. In fact, I KNOW that the wall is not the answer... and I also know that Mexico is not going to pay for it! Let's just put that out there... Two other issues are women's access to healthcare, and the general population's access to healthcare. There are huge barriers in Texas. We have both the highest numbers and the highest per capita rate of uninsured people. In my viewpoint, healthcare is not a privilege. It's a right. It's something that we have to tackle. In order to tackle it, we can't just sit back and talk about it. We have to actually do something about it. We have to get healthcare professionals in, get the insurance companies in, get the government in, and all sit down and figure out how we're gonna do this-- for the benefit of all, not just for the benefit of a few. I hear people say, "Well, if people would just get a job, they'd have health insurance." Well, that's not exactly true. There are many companies-- mostly small businesses-- that can't afford health insurance for their employees. It's a huge expense. I know, because we offer it to our employees. I get that. So, many small businesses cannot offer health insurance to their employees. So, we have to come up with something. When hospital bills can't be paid, for example, they end up being written off. Insurance rates wind up going up for those who have insurance, to cover those who don't have it. As tax payers, we're paying for it anyway, just through the back end rather than through the front end. Some people don't understand that. People who don't have health insurance are going to the doctor once their problem exacerbates, rather than going for preventive care. That costs more money, because their problem has gotten far worse than if they would have handled it through the front end. So, if everyone had access, and they could go to a general practitioner, and treat problems earlier, then it will cost less money in the long run. And THAT'S what we need to promote. A healthy population is a productive population. When people are healthy, they are not taking sick days off from work. It doesn't cost the company money and productivity. There are so many positives for people having health insurance. It shouldn't be just for those who can afford it. It should be for everyone. And that's what we'll work towards. It won't happen overnight. It will take time to work out the details of how it can be available to everyone-- without breaking the bank to do it. Socially, I'm very liberal. Fiscally, I'm very conservative. You can't spend more than what you got! I have to balance my checkbooks-- personal and business-- every month. So should the state!
JR: Agreed! Healthcare should never be politicized. But, in America at least, is has been. Disaster relief has also been a political issue. This has been thrown into the spotlight in big way with the tragedy of Hurricane Harvey. What is your opinion on that?
JP: Let's look at Medicare expansion. Texas opted out: "No, we don't want the money." So, 1.8 million Texans were left without healthcare because it was federally funded, and "No, we can't accept federal money."-- even though it was money that Texans had paid. When Hurricane Harvey hit, Texas took the federal money. I'm glad they did. They needed to get assistance from wherever they could get it. I totally agreed with that. But at the same time, I don't see the logic in not accepting the money when it was for healthcare. Yes, I know Republicans believe in less government, et cetera, et cetera... even though they have been promoting policies which are heavily government-regulated. It's talking from both sides of the mouth. Natural disaster relief shouldn't be politicized. We had a natural disaster. It was huge. The Hurricane hit three different times: It kept going out into the Gulf and coming back to shore again and again. It was devastating to the Texas coastline and the cities that are down there. Just like disaster relief, the Medicare expansion shouldn't have been an issue, It was 100% free money for the first three years. After three years, the federal government pays 90% and the state pays 10%. Still, last time I checked, the 90/10 split seems good if you're on the "10" side. None of this should have been politicized. It should have just been done. Not to over-simplify, but to me, this is just common sense. That's what needs to return to government: common sense! I know that whenever the federal government gives you money, there are always strings attached. But the strings that were attached were nothing major that we should have not taken Medicare expansion. Again, where's the common sense in this? Another example is Planned Parenthood. The state of Texas no longer funds Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood has the base. They have the infrastructure ready to assist women... and yet we de-funded it. The state started their own "women's health centers" which are not as productive as Planned Parenthood. They're not reaching the same number of women. They don't have the same number of locations; there are many fewer. Women don't have the same access. Texas has the highest maternal mortality in the country. We're higher than many developing countries. This isn't "fake news". This is real. Google it! Teen pregnancy is up. Of course, when you take away women's access to health care, things are going to go to Hell in a hand-basket. And that's what happened. We need to bring back access to healthcare for women. It's just common sense practice, and that's what we're missing. And that's not what's coming out of the Governor's office. That's why we need a leader in Texas who's going to look at ALL these issues, across the board, and say, "This is what we are going to do. This is how we ware going to handle it." I will tell you this: Every political person I speak with says, "Jeffrey, pick about three topics about what you're going to do in the state of Texas, and hammer those home." Well, there are more than three issues. We're an "all issue" campaign. When we get to Austin and I'm the Governor, I have to lead in every issue. You have to set the guidelines and set the agenda about what you want to work towards. Then, work with individuals. Whether they are Democrats or Republicans or the Green Party or Independent, it doesn't matter. Bring everyone to the table, sit down with everyone, and work it out until you come out with an agreement. If you can't agree, at least you walk out respecting the other side instead of creating this divisiveness that has just gone on way too long in our state. You can't make decisions to appease a certain group of people, or a certain base, or the next big donor. This is not how you lead. You don't lead based upon how much someone can give your campaign war chest. You need someone who will fight for all Texans. Not everyone will agree with you 100% of the time. But when you're making good, commonsense decisions, and you're leading the state, and you're representing the people, then you're doing something right. When you're ostracizing people or demeaning people in order to create a divisiveness so that there's a division between Party A and Party B, that's not being a leader. It never has been. I can't run a business like that, and never would run a business like that. I could see myself going into the Production Department, and trying to get them to dislike the Scheduling Department here at my court reporting firm. That's not how this works. We all have to work together! Sometimes I make a decision that's best for the business, and Production may get what they want but Scheduling doesn't. But Scheduling knows they have to work with Production, and vice versa. But that's what you have to do! I have been a mediator. I know how to speak with people. I know how to lead. That's what people need to understand about me. I'm not just a "gay titleholder"! (Laughs) Don't get me wrong: I don't think I'm gonna get down to Austin and we're all gonna hold hands and sing Kumbaya (Both laugh). That's not realistic either. But at the same time, we can begin the process of healing the wounds that are out there, and at the same time foster a sense of working together, no matter which side of the policy or issue you're on-- and to either come together or at least respectfully disagree at the end of the day. There's just so much hate out there. I don't get it. As leaders, we are supposed to bring people together, not divide them. I'd say that that's one of the main reasons I'm getting into this, and that's why we're going to Austin!
JR: Texans have a reputation for being tough, independent, strong-willed, strong-minded, and wanting the best of everything. So, on a final note: What makes you most proud to be a Texan?
JP: When I first arrived in 2005, what first dawned upon me was how welcoming everyone was to those of us fleeing New Orleans. There was acceptance right off the bat. It was true, for lack of a better word, "Southern hospitality". When I first came here, I didn't even have a bed. I rented an apartment and had only my two dogs, a vase, and a photo. A neighbor who heard that I was here from Katrina came and gave me an extra bed that they had in their garage. These are the type of people who live in Texas. They care, and you can tell they care. They are very loving people. You see it over and over again. When I saw how much the state truly cares, that's when I fell in love with the Texas. Texans are strong and independent, true... but it's great to see everyone come together and work as a unit. Our leaders need to tap into that and let that shine, and let that trait come back out rather than trying to be divisive! JR: After hearing that, I'm really looking forward to finally visiting your state! Good luck with your campaign, Jeffrey!
JP: Thank you! See more about Jeffrey Payne's campaign at www.Jeffrey4Texas.com.