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Prolonged Battle over Proposition 8 

It looks like the gay marriage ban won, but activists could upend the victory

Wednesday, Nov 5 2008
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By 12:37 a.m., on Wednesday, November 5, the “Yes on 8” campaign, which via Proposition 8 seeks to eliminate the right of gays and lesbians to marry legally in California, proclaimed victory with a twisted kind of logic. “While it will take a few weeks to finish counting all the votes,” Ron Prentice, chairman of the “Yes on 8” campaign, wrote in an e-mail to supporters, “Proposition 8 takes effect at midnight tonight.”

Prentice, it turns out, was getting ahead of himself.

A few minutes earlier, Lorri Jean, chief executive officer of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center, was cautiously optimistic for the “No on 8” effort. “I think we can win this thing,” Jean told a hopeful yet somewhat somber crowd at the Music Box Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. “I want to win this thing. But win or lose, this [gay] community is not going away.”

And by 5 a.m. on November 5, Nicole Winger, a spokeswoman for California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, had not declared a winner. “There are still many ballots to be counted,” she told L.A. Weekly.

But less than 10 hours later, Los Angeles County officials suspended the issuance of same-sex marriage paperwork and ceremonies, citing Prop. 8’s victory. It had boded poorly for gay-marriage advocates when the San Francisco Chronicle called the proposition approved about noon. Legal challenges were announced almost immediately by the American Civil Liberties Union, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and attorney Gloria Allred and her clients, activists Robin Tyler and Diane Olson. San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera has already announced he will sue to stop it. In other words, the wild, hard-fought campaign to ban or maintain same-sex marriage in California is far from over.

As of noon on Wednesday, November 5, with 96.6 percent of statewide precincts reporting, the “Yes on 8” campaign had collected 5,235,486 votes, or 52.2 percent of the vote, according to the California secretary of state. The “No on 8” campaign had 4,800,656 votes, or 49.8 percent. The difference is 434,830 votes.

On Election Night, at the Music Box, gay-community leaders were optimistic about the future, whether or not Proposition 8 was defeated. “This is a battle we’ve waged for decades,” said Father Geoff Farrow, a Catholic priest from Fresno, who, a few weeks ago, publicly came out of the closet to his parishioners, spoke against the ballot measure, and was subsequently relieved of his duties. “This is not a sprint. You have to have faith in humanity and that we’ll ultimately get through to them and overcome.”

The priest was obviously taking the high road, but it was still a difficult night for the gay community to not take the defeat personally. Nationwide, same-sex marriage bans were approved in Arizona and Florida, and in Arkansas, voters supported a ballot measure that prevents unmarried couples from serving as adoptive or foster parents — an initiative that is a thinly disguised strike against gays and lesbians.

Even in the face of those defeats, Farrow is undeterred. “We’re getting there,” he said. “You have to look at where we were 20 years ago. I think we’re going in the right direction, and you have to keep fighting for what is right.”

A clearly angry Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl said, “We’re not going to let a perversion of Christianity stop us.” He is referring to the major fund-raising roles played by the Mormon and Catholic churches, which donated tens of millions of dollars to the “Yes on 8” campaign. “In the long run,” Rosendahl added, “love wins all.”

He said the “Yes on 8” team, led by political consultant Frank Schubert, ran an “effective, negative campaign,” with some of the “most scurrilous ads ever.” He also thought voters were “confused,” thinking a “yes” vote on Proposition 8 was actually a vote in favor of same-sex marriage rather than a reversal of the California State Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage on May 15, 2008. “People didn’t understand,” the openly gay city councilman said.

West Hollywood City Councilman John Duran, an openly gay man, thought the close vote actually showed progress for the gay-rights movement in California. “The starting point for analysis is Proposition 22,” Duran said, referring to the 2000 same-sex marriage ban that voters approved by 61 percent. “A lot of significant political movement has happened in a short period of time.”

Three major turning points affected the “No on 8” campaign, Duran also explained. First, in early October, the “No on 8” team realized they were behind the “Yes on 8” campaign in fund-raising by $10 million, and then quickly made up that difference in a matter of weeks. Duran said that correction enabled gay-marriage supporters to fund a more effective TV and radio ad campaign.

The second turning point wasn’t so positive. Around the same time the “No on 8” campaign was scrambling for cash, the “Yes on 8” team aired a TV ad that prominently featured San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who publicly said, soon after the California State Supreme Court ruling, that gay marriage was coming “whether you like it or not.”

“Those words hurt,” Duran said. “It broke our stride.”

The third turning point came a few weeks later, when California U.S. Dianne Feinstein appeared in a “No on 8” TV ad. “Senator Feinstein, as a well-known Democratic moderate, helped rescue us,” Duran said.

Whether or not “No on 8” somehow prevails, Duran expects further skirmishes with anti-gay forces. “We’ll be back against the same enemies in two years,” he predicted. “We already know they’re sniffing around to ban gay adoption.”

What none of the gay community leaders fully understood on Election Night, though, was the unusual role some normally liberal areas were playing in the Proposition 8 battle. Exit polls cited by the Los Angeles Times showed black voters favoring the ban by roughly 70 to 30 percent, and Latinos slightly favoring the ban. In Los Angeles County alone, the preliminary results from election officials showed 20,806 more “yes” than “no” votes for the measure. That number could grow because a few hundred thousand provisional and absentee ballots have yet to be counted.

Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Dean Logan said that voter turnout in the county would be an “all-time, record high” of 82 or 83 percent.

The “Yes on 8” campaign, in the meantime, couldn’t back up its victory announcement. When L.A. Weekly asked “Yes on 8” campaign spokesman Chip White which were the key counties for the Proposition 8 win, he replied, “I don’t have that breakdown for you” — but numerous Central Valley counties appeared to have led the votes in favor of Prop. 8.

As the “No on 8” campaign party was winding down, Peter Capozzi stood inside the Music Box Theater just a few feet from the stage, where Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was waxing poetic, telling disappointed gays and lesbians that on “other side of midnight is a new dawn.”

Capozzi, a West Hollywood resident and openly gay man, had been a volunteer on the campaign for several weeks. He looked around the room, with a long face. So many of my friends are here,” he said, “and they worked so hard. I feel bad for them.”

He was “thrilled” about Senator Barack Obama winning the presidential race, and he even thought an Obama administration would be good for the gay community, but Capozzi was still hurt about the Proposition 8 results that were projected on the big screens above him.

“I feel this fear and bigotry that’s swirling around me and my friends,” he said.

For Capozzi, the vote wasn’t so much a denouncement of same-sex marriage but a personal attack against him and the gay community. Only a possible defeat of Prop. 8 would change some of those feelings.

Reach the writer at pmcdonald@laweekly.com

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