When Right is Wrong

On May 8, the LGBT community will face the first of at least five anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives in 2012. North Carolina, concurrent with both Republican and Democratic primary races, will vote to approve or reject Amendment One to the state’s constitution.

The conventional outlook that efforts to defeat this are hopeless was perfectly summed up by the proprietor of Daily Kos, when he said on Feb. 16:

Just looked it up latest PPP poll on that amendment, 56% in favor, 34% opposed. It’s going to pass.

It’ll be a while before we move the needle, on that issue, in any southern state, even the changing border ones.

Click image for larger view at {link url="http://www.ballotpedia.org/wiki/index.php/North_Carolina_Same-Sex_Marriage,_Amendment_1_(May_2012)#Polls"}Ballotmedia{/link}.

A closer look reveals that the polling needn’t be considered as hopeless as all that. For one thing, support is steadily tracking downward, the January poll was five points less than on taken in September, which showed 61 percent support.

And in fact, another poll, conducted by Elon University in November 2011, showed that 56 percent of adults opposed the amendment.

Ballotpedia has a summary of nine recent polls, four of which show it passing, four show it failing (one shows support leading, but at 49 percent). It’s tough, it’s foreboding, but progressives have fought—and won—against longer odds in the past.

A look at PPP’s cross tabs are even more revealing, only 40 percent of North Carolinians are supportive of the amendment’s goal, and what will be its ultimate outcome: absolutely no recognition for any same-sex families’ rights, forever. In fact, adding those who support marriage and civil unions shows a real potential for 57 percent opposition. From Public Policy Polling’s summary of Jan. 12:

57% of North Carolinians support some form of legal recognition for gay couples- either full marriage rights or civil unions- to only 40% who are completely opposed to any rights for same sex couples.

Tom Jensen at PPP spells it out:

About 20% of North Carolinians support legal recognition for gays and plan to vote for the marriage amendment. Getting those folks to change their minds will be the key for those hoping to defeat it.

The voters are out there. They just are ignorant of what the amendment actually does (bans civil unions, domestic partnership or any other recognition). And in fact they are actively being deceived, opponents are already spreading the misinformation—call it what it is, a lie—that voting against the amendment is voting to help the gays “redefine marriage” (their favorite catchphrase). They depend on misinformation and ignorance to win.

I should confess to being among those who’d written off North Carolina as a fait accompli and unwinnable.

But on Monday, I spoke with organizers and their “Yes, we can!” attitude was truly contagious (remember that?).

But better than their enthusiasm, they seem to have a hatched out a strong pathway to success. At this point they have a staff of 30, 26 in seven field offices, and are making 20,000 voter calls a week. They have also looped in 117 groups into their Truth Squad that will participate in fact-checking the many lies that always emanate from the religious right opponents to LGBT equality.

These organizers are getting increasingly sophisticated and aggressive and learning from mistakes of the past. Protect ALL NC Families has a full-time faith outreach director working with 225 supportive congregations. North Carolina is also only the second time that a state-level NAACP office has engaged in such a battle, and they are doing so aggressively. They brought Chad Griffin onboard as a paid media consultant. Griffin is the driving force behind the successful constitutional challenge of Proposition 8, and founder of Americans Foundation for Equal Rights, and also the incoming President of Human Rights Campaign.

It’s important to realize too that another piece of conventional wisdom is also wrong: that the gays always lose.

In fact, in Arizona in 2006, an amendment to the Arizona State Constitution that would have banned marriage equality did fail, opponents of marriage equality never mention that failure though. The state did eventual approve a less draconian amendment in 2008, but the lessons for success can still be gleaned from the earlier battle.

So. How did the state that voted down Martin Luther King Day also come to vote down a gay marriage ban? James Burroway at the Box Turtle Bulletin shared some thoughts here, they boil down to:

  1. a hapless organization supporting the proposition,
  2. a brilliant, well-researched and disciplined campaign against the proposition,
  3. A “de-gayed” message that focused on the proposition’s impact on heterosexual couples,
  4. and the unique climate and circumstances of the LGBT community in Arizona.

Paul Hogarth also did a post-mortem in November 2006: How Arizona Beat Anti-Gay Bigotry.

In truth, Arizona overreached with a draconian ban on any legal partnership recognition outside of opposite-sex legal marriage. This is the same flaw the proposed North Carolina amendment has.

Paul Hogarth spoke to Arizona State Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, chair of Arizona Together, the campaign that worked to defeat the initiative. (Now running for US Congress, by the way.) She said, “We did a better job investing resources in message development and carried it on with ruthless discipline. We had a very articulated three-prong strategy of (a) do the research, (b) tell the truth and (c) always stay on message.”

“We called it a ‘bait-and-switch,’” said Sinema. “Our campaign focused on why would you want to take away the domestic benefits and legal protections of unmarried partners.”

Voters don’t think – they feel. …

By showing how the Marriage Amendment could hurt real people who swing voters in Arizona could relate to, the campaign was able to make their argument more effectively.

As there is no reason to believe North Carolinians are any less open to persuasion and education than Arizonians, organizers there have effectively torn a page from the Arizona strategy.

One sheet
Protect ALL NC Families one-sheet ({link url="http://www.protectncfamilies.org/sites/protectncfamilies/files/AllOneSheet_01_06.pdf"}pdf here{/link}).

The campaign is working hard to disseminate the information that this amendment takes out a lot of collateral damage not just the LGBT community, including:

Single women

In Ohio, a similar amendment lead a judge to conclude that domestic violence laws passed to protect women were not applicable to unmarried partners, who are not unrecognized by law. March 24, 2005:

Ohio Judge Stuart Friedman has held that part of the domestic violence law is unconstitutional under that amendment, and that the domestic violence law cannot be applied to unmarried people.

Amidst the chaos, convictions were overturned and prosecutors were forced to file reduced charges against perpetrators. The NC ACLU agrees (pdf), the amendment could be construed to “Invalidate protections against domestic violence to members of unmarried couples.”


Some children will lose their health insurance, it will happen. Amendment One strips the domestic partnership benefits currently offered to unmarried employees by local governments, including Asheville, Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Durham, Greensboro, and Mecklenburg, Durham and Orange Counties.

For this reason, Duke University issued a statement saying, We Stand Alongside the LGBT Community, explaining the commitment they have to treating their faculty and students fairly and extending domestic partnership benefits to all families. These are benefits they will no longer be able to offer.

The elderly

The elderly too may find Social Security, retirement or pension benefits may be affected by the decision to wed. Some may avail themselves of other domestic partnership benefits available to them, while remaining officially unwed. These benefits may be stripped of them as well.

Proponents of the bill have tried to dismiss these concerns as “ridiculous” but the Charlotte Observer, one of the state’s two largest papers says they are very legitimate, and added some more complaints themselves. Friday, the paper published an editorial “Marriage bill jeopardizes rights of more than gays.”

“It’s a shame this unwise and unnecessary amendment is even on the ballot. It wrongly writes discrimination into the state’s constitution – and it jeopardizes protections for straights as well as gays. Voters should reject this legislation.”

Reasons for optimism

The initial news that the vote had been moved from the general election to the primary seemed like a death knell. But news coming out of NC since has given cause to be optimistic. In addition to the sinking support in the polls, there will in all likelihood, be a contested primary for the Governor’s race, an encouraging sign the larger Democratic coalition will be more inclined to turn out.

And kids on the ground in North Carolina colleges are showing a big interest in the Amendment. Universities across the state are passing resolutions of condemnation, including NC State University, NC Central, Guilford College and UNC-Greensboro, UNC-Chapel Hill, East Carolina University, UNC-Asheville. Not surprising as nearly 80 percent of college age voters oppose Amendment One. It’s helpful too that NC has three weeks of open voting prior to May 8, a particularly useful instrument for corralling the youth vote. There isn’t a better opportunity for the Democrats to play the politics of contrast than to answer the GOP’s call to battle here.

The enthusiasm of the youth vote does offer an opportunity for the larger Democratic coalition to get in on the ground floor with voter registration and early get out the vote efforts, something that Team Obama seems to recognize, as they are almost surely going to be fighting hard for this state in November. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius speaking before 1,4000 folks at a Human Rights Campaign dinner in Charlotte said:

“I know there’s an important election in early May in North Carolina. And I think it’s a great template for what needs to be done to organize people and turn out people for November. North Carolina is hugely important in this next (presidential) election.”

Protect ALL Families NC reports that Organizing For America NC has been very supportive and engaged in coordinating efforts. OFA has been happy to report strong support numbers in President Obama’s uncontested primary battle, sometimes outperforming the GOP contest. Amendment One offers an opportunity to piggyback on a GOTV effort that has a real sense of urgency for many young, progressive North Carolinians.

There is still an unanswered ask out to DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Shultz to appropriate some resources to this fight, something she said she’d consider. She might consider this could be fertile grounds for recruiting quite an electoral army in November, in terms of list building and volunteer outreach and voter registration drives.

Custom Avatar
Custom avatar via Protect ALL NC Families

The Protect ALL NC Families coalition itself is cleverly appealing to the youth market devising innovative hooks into social networks like fundraising pages, and customizing avatars on Facebook and Twitter to show opposition. The page also includes downloadable templates for bumperstickers, yardsigns, logos for tee-shirts and other ways Protect ALL NC Families supporters can customize the campaign branding as their own.

There is also a page Protect ALL NC Families supporters can share their own stories of opposition, in words, pictures or video, a vital component to modern social networking.

Race To The Ballot
On Feb. 11 Race to the Ballot drew thousands to downtown Raleigh including NAACP President and CEO Ben Jealous. Above organizer Jen Jones (center) with friends. ({link url="http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.280369215328145.71035.280285362003197&type=1"}Facebook{/link})
We can hope for generous ad buys and slick and effective commercials, but there really isn’t a shortcut to doing the ground work. The campaigns that have prospered in the past did this work, they reached out to communities and just plain had a lot of conversations. And a state-wide coordinated Race To The Ballot program has embarked on a 322 mile run “from the mountains of Asheville, N.C., to the coastal city of Wilmington, N.C.”, raising awareness of the harm of the amendment, holding rallies and town halls and with the goal of sparking “1 million conversations.”

Given NC Republican Senator Richard Burr’s vote to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” and an increased focus on the injustice of denying family benefits to LGBT military families, the coalition may be wise to work to enlist the support from members of NC’s substantial military community to stand up for their own. Such a strategy might have been unthinkable just a few years ago, but the edict of silence has since been lifted for LGBT supporters in the military community, and they are increasingly speaking out.

Kicking into drive

The coalition kicked their work into overdrive this week, releasing the video above, titled “Momentum.” It features President and CEO of the NAACP Ben Jealous, the Rev. William Barber President of North Carolina NAACP, President Barack Obama and countless local validators voicing their opposition.

Response from the initial push has been encouraging, Nation Hahn from the Coalition to Protect ALL NC Families had this to report since Thursday’s launch:

  • In just the first three days of this week we signed up more volunteers and made more voters contact than in the seven days previous.
  • This week alone we have 378 individual contributors – pushing us above the 2,200 donor threshold. Grassroots donors continue to be the bread and butter of this campaign – and we hope that major donors join them. In state major donors, for the most part, are beginning to contribute – we’ve received two gifts of 10k plus this week for example.
  • Faith outreach continues to accelerate — we are the first Southern LGBT campaign, to our knowledge, to have a full time faith outreach director who has built a faith program from scratch.

The clouds are of course on the horizon, National Organization for Marriage, perhaps seeing the falling poll numbers just jumped in on Friday, sending out panicked-sounding, hair-on-fire missive that said (emphasis theirs):

We’ve just learned that gay marriage supporters in North Carolina have been stockpiling mountains of cash.

“Stockpiling mountains” is their usual hysterical hyperbole, but the truth is Protect ALL Families NC’s fundraising is currently outpacing their opponents, something NOM probably didn’t plan on. This state of affairs surely won’t continue as NOM’s deep-pocket, tax-exempt “charitable” benefactors will soon be dropping large sums of out-of-state cash into the effort to enshrine discrimination into the NC constitution. The “collections for elections” machine of the Church is a powerful force.

And while Protect ALL Families’ $600,000 fundraising so far is impressive, they still have a long ways to go. The goal is $3 million to wage an effective campaign. Ninety-two percent of donors have been in-state, but the national donors, big and small have lagged. Checkbooks aren’t closed, but they aren’t open, it seems there is an an attitude of wait-and-see. But for the people in the state to effectively exploit their current positive momentum, the waiting must end. Even grassroots efforts benefit from the ability to hire full-time paid organizers.

The LGBT community is sure to break the religious right’s winning streak in 2012 among the five battles looming. In some ways, North Carolina could be the sweetest and most resounding victory of all, just precisely because the conventional wisdom has written it off as undoable. I can’t imagine a more effective way to strike the fear of God into the hearts of marriage equality opponents than to see (another) southern state vote down an amendment like this. Recall the national shock waves that followed Mississippi voting down the personhood amendment after so many serious people declared it was destined to pass?

It presents a real opportunity to knock the religious right back on their heels. Imagine the panicked spin they’d have to put out in the wake of such a humiliating defeat just six months before they head into Maine, Washington, Minnesota and Maryland to waged the very same battle. Brian Brown President of National Organization for Marriage said Friday:

If our opponents were to steal victory in North Carolina, it would be devastating for the cause of marriage nationwide—and they know it.

Harvey Milk
Milk said, "You gotta give 'em hope." (GLBT Historical Society)

There was another man who beat some long odds defeating an anti-gay amendment, the Briggs Initiative, way back in the days of disco. He too was told it couldn’t be done. Somehow he and his coalition convinced the voting public of the great state of California in 1978 that it was okay to let gay people teach their children, all the hysterical, hateful hyperbole of Anita Bryant notwithstanding. His name was Harvey Milk, and his catch-phrase was, “You gotta give ’em hope.”

I sent a little hope down to North Carolina myself this week.

My friend and fellow blogger, Pam Spaulding, herself a North Carolinian, taped a message on her thoughts, above. Her blog Pam’s House Blend, may be one of the best sources for news of this ballot fight (along with Protect ALL NC Families and EqualityNC).

Scott Wooledge

Scott Wooledge

Scott Wooledge is a New York City writer and activist. He has worked on many campaigns, including Obama 2008, Hodes for Senate 2010, the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and New York's marriage equality. He posts under the handle Clarknt67 at the Daily Kos progressive blog and can also be seen at many other LGBT and progressive sites.