Chris Heinbaugh tackles a new beat

By John Wright Staff Writer

Gay former TV reporter now settling in as mayor’s chief of staff



Decorated journalist Chris Heinbaugh, pictured in Dallas City Council chambers on Tuesday, Sept. 25, shared some personal news with the world in 2002 when he came out. (JOHN WRIGHT/Dallas Voice)

After he decided to accept an offer to become Mayor Tom Leppert’s chief of staff in August, one of the first people Chris Heinbaugh called was Ed Oakley.

“I wanted him to hear it from me,” Heinbaugh said. “He said, “‘It would be good for you, it would be good for him [Leppert], and it would be good for the city.’ I wanted Ed to know and understand why I was doing it, and he was great about it.”

Heinbaugh, a reporter with WFAA News 8 since 2000, had worked closely with Oakley ever since the former city councilman first ran for election six years ago. And as the channel’s City Hall correspondent, Heinbaugh had recently finished covering the runoff between Oakley and Leppert for mayor in this year’s election.

As with everyone – including his new boss Heinbaugh’s stories related to Oakley were not always positive. But the two openly gay public figures had remained friends a relationship that does not always exist between politicians and journalists.

“Most people here I have good relationships with,” Heinbaugh said from City Hall this week. “If you do it with respect, they’ll understand you’re doing your job and it’s not personal, and that aspect of my job hasn’t changed at all.”

Heinbaugh, 47, is an 11-time Emmy winner who’s been nominated for four more this year. A native of Phoenix, he worked for TV stations in California, El Paso, Richmond, Phoenix and Seattle before moving to Dallas.

But it wasn’t until after he got here in 2002 that he finally came out. He sat down recently with Dallas Voice to talk about the journey.

Dallas Voice: After all those years, what prompted you to finally come out?
Heinbaugh: I’d lost my dad several years before, and then I was almost killed in a car wreck moving from Seattle to here. My Ford Explorer flipped over. They had to cut me out of it. It was in the middle of Wyoming in winter. So I kind of was feeling like I wanted to live my life the way I wanted to, but wasn’t quite there. Then a couple of other things came into play. [Channel 8 owner] Belo was a great place, and I felt very comfortable in the environment there, and I felt like I could be myself. But also, after 9/11, I went to New York and covered that, and that had a big impact on me, and not long after that is when I decided to do it.

Dallas Voice: Was it a smooth process?
Heinbaugh: Family was pretty cool about it. Most of my friends were like, “Yeah, we knew.” And I’m like, “Of course you knew. I’m 40, fabulous and single.”
They were fine with it, and at work generally nobody made a big deal out of it, and I didn’t make a big deal out of it. For me, that was part of my coming out. I figured if you make a huge, dramatic event out of it, the people around you are going to make a huge, dramatic event about it. Most of the time they know on some level, so you just kind of treat it in the natural course of things.

Dallas Voice: With National Coming Out Day approaching, can you talk about how important it is for people especially those like you who occupy positions of prominence to do what you did?
Heinbaugh: When the Texas sodomy law was overturned, I remember somebody saying during that how important it was for people to come out because those who are opposed to gay rights, they like to dehumanize us, because if you dehumanize us to everybody else, then when they start taking our rights away, it becomes easier, because they’re not taking another person’s rights away, it’s those gays or whatever. But when you come out to your colleagues, to your family, all of a sudden, it’s your coworker that you’re denying a right to, it’s your aunt or your sister who you’re not letting get married. All of a sudden, it’s real people. It’s people they know, and it becomes much harder to look us in the eye and deny us our rights, and that’s why when I came out I made a very conscious decision that I would also come out publicly, not waving a flag, but I was not going to try to hide it, either.

Dallas Voice: Outside of 9/11, what was the most memorable event you’ve covered?
Heinbaugh: The Challenger disaster. It was right here. Our photographer shot the thing falling apart. They just happened to be shooting. I remember driving down to Houston and seeing parts of the shuttle on the side of the road burning, pieces of it.
That was another story that I will always remember covering, a big piece of history. But I’ve enjoyed covering politics. City Hall’s been fun to cover. I covered this mayor very briefly, but I covered [former Mayor Ron] Kirk, and I covered Laura Miller, and I covered Kirk’s Senate run, and I also worked on covering some of the 2004 campaign. I went to some of the primaries and I followed Kerry during that campaign. That was all pretty fun, too.

Dallas Voice: And of course you covered the most recent mayor’s race. In your mind, as an openly gay, longtime observer of city politics, was Oakley’s sexual orientation a major factor in the race?
Heinbaugh: It’s hard to say. No. 1, having covered this, I never got the anti-gay vibe from this mayor. I never, ever felt that, and I was around him a lot, and I think we’re all pretty sharply attuned to that. You can pick it up from somebody. It’s not to say there weren’t some people in his camp who felt that way, but I never got that from him, and I never saw where he said anything that would have indicated that. I think there were a lot of factors in the race that caused people to choose Mayor Leppert over Ed.

Dallas Voice: Do you think Leppert hired you in part to help quell some of the doubt that had arisen about his gay-friendliness?
Heinbaugh: I don’t think so. My sense was that what he needed keep in mind, he ran as an outsider he needed an outsider who knew the inside, and I fit that better than anybody. He needed somebody with some institutional knowledge, some history, but someone who wasn’t wrapped up on the inside and could still look objectively at things. It wasn’t my sense that that was a factor, and when I told him because I wanted to make sure that he understood that I’m gay, I’m out and I’m not going back in he said: “It doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me is results.”

Dallas Voice: As the mayor’s chief of staff, and with no openly gay members of the City Council, do you feel like you have an added responsibility to the LGBT community?
Heinbaugh: To a degree. I’m not interested in being anyone’s role model, but I do think I obviously have a sensitivity. I’m always looking out for our interests. He may or may not agree with me, but it doesn’t matter. Voters didn’t elect me, they elected him, and that’s what matters. But what I will always do is make sure that he has our side of the story and has our views and our concerns, and that they’re laid out before him and other councilmembers as well. Yes, that is part of the responsibility that goes along with being gay and holding the position that I hold.

E-mail wright@dallasvoice.com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 28, 2007

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