Riding the Cultural Divide with Proposition 8
On the evening of September 22, Young Israel of Century City synagogue hosted an “interfaith” town hall meeting for supporters of the November 4 Proposition 8 measure to ban same-sex marriage in California. The event wasn’t highly publicized, but 60 or 70 people, many of them young men and women in their 20s who belong to the Mormon Church, showed up at the temple on Pico Boulevard, just down the street from Factor’s Famous Deli. After an all-male a cappella group sang, “In Him My Soul Delights,” Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, a Catholic and longtime academic with teaching stints at Yale and George Mason universities, took the podium.
Founder of the San Diego–based Ruth Institute, Morse promotes “lifelong married love” between a man and a woman. According to the institute’s Web site, she also believes “treating same-sex unions as marriages will change marriage in destructive ways.” She opposes legalized gay marriage in California, as did the other speakers, who included Dr. Mark Brewer of Bel Air Presbyterian Church, Randall Huff of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of the influential Jewish group Orthodoxy Union.
But it was Morse, speaking with a kind of shoot-from-the-hip flair, who best laid out the big-picture implications of the 2008 Prop. 8 battle. “People often call us the land of fruits and nuts,” she told the crowd. “People expect us to do crazy things out here. ... But if gay marriage goes down in California, it goes down in the United States. If it goes down in the United States, it goes down around the world.”
The audience quietly nodded.
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“If gay marriage goes down in California,” she later concluded, “it won’t be back in our lifetime.”
Five days later, on a bright Saturday afternoon, Lorri Jean, chief executive officer of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center, stood on a makeshift altar in the backyard of a Hollywood Hills home just above Doheny Drive. Friends and family sat in foldout chairs to witness her marriage to her longtime partner, attorney Gina Calvelli.
Jean’s younger brother Andy, a straight man and a cattle rancher from Idaho, presided over the ceremony, and after the women exchanged wedding rings and kissed, Jean turned to the 50 friends and family gathered. For months, the nationally recognized gay-rights activist had been anxious about defeating Proposition 8, but now she felt something different come over her.
“I saw all of those smiling faces,” Jean says, “and most of them were straight. But they were just so happy for us. They seemed to want it more than we did. I thought to myself, Maybe we really can win this time, maybe it will be different.”
By the following Monday morning, Jean was back at her fourth-floor corner office at the Gay & Lesbian Center in Hollywood, where she spends half of a 70- to 80-hour workweek making phone calls and taking meetings as an executive-committee member of the “No on 8” campaign, the umbrella group organized to defeat Proposition 8.
“I couldn’t take a honeymoon,” says Jean, sitting at her desk with a view of the Hollywood sign behind her. “[Proposition 8] could set back our quest for full marriage equality for a generation.”
But if the ballot measure were voted down, Jean predicts, “It will make a lot of states with fair-minded legislators think that maybe they should take a look at same-sex marriage. The stakes in this fight are enormously high, win or lose.”
Dr. Morse wouldn’t disagree with her. On November 4, according to experts on both sides of the Prop. 8 battle, voters will not only decide if same-sex marriage will remain legal in California, but, through a political domino effect, if gays and lesbians can wed in other states in the next year or two.
“California is a thought leader for other courts and other states,” says Maggie Gallagher, president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, and one of the leading opponents of same-sex marriage in the United States. If Proposition 8 doesn’t pass and gay marriage remains legal, Gallagher believes other states will follow California’s lead and “effectively end the [traditional] marriage movement” across the country.
“It will be a mop-up movement after that,” Gallagher says.
Gay-marriage advocates now see New Jersey, New York, Minnesota, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont as battlegrounds ready to be won if Californians back gay marriage by voting down Prop. 8. On October 10, the state Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in Connecticut.
“We will likely have full marriage equality [in those states] by 2011,” says Marty Rouse, national field director at the Human Rights Campaign, an influential gay-rights lobbying group based in Washington, D.C. Iowa will also jump into the-gay marriage fray, with a case to be heard by the state Supreme Court in December.
“California is the biggest battle in my lifetime,” says Mark Paredes, who holds the title of high counselor at the Santa Monica Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who believes the November decision will have a “worldwide” impact, with countries in Europe and beyond following the example set by the United States.
With so much at stake, both sides have been collecting millions of dollars in contributions, unprecedented levels, according to a recent University of Southern California report. But things haven’t always gone smoothly for the “No on 8” team. Gay-marriage advocates have consistently — and to some, surprisingly — lagged behind the opponents of same-sex marriage in fund-raising, which has hampered their TV-ad presence. As a mark of how poorly things were going inside the “No on 8” camp, in early October its leadership was shaken up, and former Log Cabin Republicans president Patrick Guerriero was installed as campaign director.
With fresh polls showing a tighter race than expected, after a key September poll appeared to show strong opposition to banning gay marriage, neither side is a clear front-runner. At this historic turning point, California voters, whether they realize it or not, now have a world of judges, lawyers, politicians and activists watching what they do.
In early October, Marty Rouse left his partner and two kids in Washington, D.C., and moved to San Francisco to work full-time on defeating Proposition 8. A veteran of the successful pro-gay-marriage battle in Massachusetts, Rouse had been hired as a national field director by the Human Rights Campaign in 2006. For the gay movement’s standard-bearers at HRC, victory in California, by stopping Prop. 8, is the highest priority.
“A [Prop. 8 win] would slow down the momentum for full marriage equality in the United States,” Rouse explains during a phone interview. “If marriage equality stays [in California], it would hasten full marriage equality across the country.”
According to Rouse, the HRC has donated nearly $3 million to maintain the momentum. Active in unsuccessful efforts to defeat gay-marriage bans in other states, Rouse says the Human Rights Campaign is offering by far the most money and resources that it has ever given to a single ballot measure, and with good reason: According to Rouse, California could be the catalyst for the swift passage of gay-marriage laws in several states in the next two years.
“We currently have [gay] marriage in the country because of the courts,” the activist says, “but we’ll soon have it because of the legislatures, which will be different for us.”
Winning close decisions by split and sometimes highly politicized courts is not what the movement really wants, because it might lead to years of divisiveness and could spawn ugly cultural battles, as did the disastrous court-enforced school busing of the 1970s or the Supreme Court ruling in Roe vs. Wade. Winning the hearts of American voters is, instead, the goal. Rouse believes New Jersey and New York, where state legislatures and two Democratic governors are open to the idea of same-sex marriage, are ripe for new laws. In New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont and Minnesota, the state legislatures have signaled their willingness to legalize gay marriage. “Some states will also go back and repeal their laws,” predicts Rouse, citing Oregon — where voters banned same-sex marriage in 2004 — as a strong possibility.
These states, though, are watching California, where for the first time in the post-Ellen, post–Doogie Howser, post–Gavin Newsom era, the voting public — not judges or legislators—will have the final word in this polarizing cultural debate.
“If Prop. 8 doesn’t pass,” says Jon Davidson, legal director at Lambda Legal, a gay-rights legal group deeply involved in the same-sex-marriage wars, “the voters will be saying they’re fine with gay marriage. Our opponents will no longer be able to blame so-called rogue jurists. It will be the people who have spoken.”
This distinction gives the Prop. 8 vote more political heft, according to Gallagher, the president of the Virginia-based institute that promotes traditional marriage. “If you put it to the voters,” Gallagher says, “and they say they support [gay marriage], that’ll be a dramatic change.”
Gallagher believes Prop. 8 will pass, placing the ban on gay marriage in the California Constitution. But if the ballot measure fails, she expects that not only will new same-sex-marriage laws be passed in other states, but that the federal bipartisan 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which allows states to ignore legal gay marriages entered into in other states, will also be challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court in the next few years.
For now, Guido Sanchez, executive director of Pride Connections Center in Jersey City, New Jersey, is keeping his eye on what happens in California. “Either outcome will affect New Jersey,” says the activist, also a member of Garden State Equality, a pro-gay-marriage group. Same-sex-marriage advocates in New Jersey will be either angered or overjoyed by the vote, he says, then push hard for full marriage equality immediately after Election Day. “The fight begins on November 5,” he says. New Jersey does have an initiative process, which would allow voters to ban gay marriage, but Sanchez has not heard any “rumblings” about such an effort — so far.
New Jersey has offered same-sex couples civil unions since 2006, but gay activists in that state have been actively seeking full marriage rights for several months. “We’ve seen examples over the last year that civil unions don’t work,” says Sanchez. Once the Prop. 8 vote comes down, he envisions a “very short timeline” for the New Jersey Legislature to pass a pro-gay-marriage bill, probably less than a year.
Davidson of Lambda Legal believes the California election will figure heavily in Iowa’s battle over gay marriage. “It will send a significant message,” he says. Davidson sees the strong possibility that by the end of 2009, gay marriage will be legal in five states: Connecticut and Massachusetts, where it is already legal, plus California, New Jersey and New York.
Jordan Lorence agrees, even though he argues cases for the other side of the same-sex-marriage fight. “I think it’s a definite possibility,” says Lorence, senior counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund, a legal group that fights to uphold gay-marriage bans in court. “New York and New Jersey legislatures will just enact same-sex marriage, and they will be very encouraged by what happens in California.”
Lorence believes a defeat for either side will be “significant,” but “it won’t be the end of the ball game.” (His legal rival, Jon Davidson, is a little more gloomy: “A defeat will set us back years, if not decades.”) Lorence expects more lawsuits and more public-relations skirmishes. “There’s a battle of perceptions on both sides if same-sex is inevitable or not,” he says. If voters shoot down Prop. 8, Lorence predicts Lambda Legal will be very busy. “The ramifications, if it loses, is that people fly into California, get married, and go back to their states and sue for marriage rights,” he says.
That’s the kind of scenario that deeply concerns the Mormon Church. “Our leaders feel that if we start redefining marriage, it’s not a good thing for society,” says Paredes of the Mormon Church in Santa Monica, “so we were all asked to donate.”
With approximately 750,000 Mormons in California, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has become a major player in promoting Prop. 8, and individual members have reportedly contributed millions of dollars. “We’re very organized as a church,” Paredes explains. “So we’re very easy to mobilize.”
He says the Mormon Church is not only worried about the ripple effects of continued legal gay marriage in California and the rest of the country, but throughout the world. “It will become a worldwide phenomenon,” he predicts. “The church sees this as a crossroads.” Although Paredes talks about the “moral confusion” gay marriage would cause in American society and beyond, the ultimate reason for the church’s intense involvement in “Yes on 8” appears to lie much closer to home: “We want to preserve our faith and our way of life,” he says when pressed about the church’s biggest fears. “We want our religious liberties to remain intact.”
Lambda Legal’s Davidson counters, “If the right wing wins, it’ll show that if you mobilize and gather enough money, you can take away any gay right. Why would they just stop with marriage?”
University of Southern California Professor John Matsusaka has studied California ballot measures for more than 20 years. Since 2004, he’s been president of the Initiative & Referendum Institute at USC. According to Matsusaka, the Golden State regularly sets the tone for public policy throughout the country. “Proposition 13 clearly sent off a chain reaction throughout the country for lower property taxes,” he says, “and it may have even played a role in Ronald Reagan becoming president.”
In a recent Initiative & Referendum Institute report, Matsusaka predicts that Prop. 8 will fail and gay marriage will remain legal here. “I would be surprised if it passed,” he tells the Weekly.
Because voters in 2000 approved Prop. 22, which banned same-sex marriage in California, a turnabout in sentiment among voters would be “extremely discouraging” to opponents of gay marriage. “California was one of the first states to adopt a ban on gay marriage,” Matsusaka says, “so it would be very significant if it reversed itself. Other states would take notice.” It’s an opportunity, he says, that gay-rights leaders should not squander. “This is their big chance to get a ruling from the people, and that would be a first.”
The “No on 8” campaign has faced some very rough times, though. By August 20, troubles began to surface. Although more than 50 national and local groups expected to raise at least $20 million to defeat Prop. 8, by late summer, their opponents had begun to overtake them in total contributions, primarily because of a $1 million donation to “Yes on 8” from the Knights of Columbus, the world’s largest Catholic fraternal organization.
“Yes on 8” was only a few hundred thousand dollars ahead at the time, but considering the gay community’s close connections to wealth in Hollywood, it was a startling development that never reversed itself. Just four weeks later, according to the California secretary of state, “Yes on 8” had raised $16.2 million versus the $10.8 million raised by the “No on 8” camp.
Dale Kelly Bankhead, campaign manager for “No on 8,” sent an urgent e-mail to supporters on September 16. “We must match what is raised dollar for dollar with the right wing,” she wrote. “If we do not, we are at serious risk of losing this November.” Bankhead, who worked on the failed effort to defeat the ban in California in 2000, made an impassioned but slightly panicked open plea to receive $200,000 in the next 48 hours to somehow close the gap.
It didn’t work. Even though Brad Pitt and Steven Spielberg each contributed $100,000, by October 7, “No on 8” had fallen nearly $10 million behind its opponents — $15.75 million to $25 million. In addition, a SurveyUSA poll, as well as an internal poll released by the “No on 8” campaign, showed support for Prop. 8 pulling ahead.
It was a dramatic collapse: For the entire summer and into early fall, the ballot measure was usually behind by more than 10 percentage points, according to the Field Poll and the Public Policy Institute of California.
In an October 7 e-mail to supporters, Geoff Kors, a member of the executive committee of “No on 8,” blamed the reverse on a highly effective TV ad by the “Yes on 8” campaign, which claimed churches could lose their tax-exemption status, people could be sued for their personal beliefs, and young children could be taught about gay marriage in public schools — as they are in Massachusetts classrooms, to the consternation of many angry parents — if Prop. 8 did not pass. The “Yes on 8” ad also used — to great effect — San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s infamous, loudly shouted claim that gay marriage is coming, “whether they like it or not!”
“Our worst nightmares are coming true,” Kors wrote to opponents of Prop. 8. “Today we learned of the massive $25.4 million our opponents have raised so far. They are using this war chest to broadcast lies: 24/7 and up and down the state of California. And the polls show the lies are working. We need your donation now.”
But the small donations the campaign had hoped for, in increments of $50 or so, just did not pour in to the “No on 8” campaign. And that wasn’t the only problem for Kors and the rest of the executive committee. By mid-September, according to Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center chief executive officer Lorri Jean, wealthy potential donors had still not stepped up with big infusions. “It’s not that people don’t want to give,” Jean told L.A. Weekly at the time, “they’re just giving elsewhere.” For example, Frontiers news editor Karen Ocamb revealed in a September 17 article in that magazine that openly gay and lesbian entertainers Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O’Donnell, Gus Van Sant and Melissa Etheridge had failed to donate the kind of early money that can make or break a campaign, giving nothing as of September 10. DeGeneres, Van Sant and Etheridge subsequently gave large donations to “No on 8.”
Geoff Kors also told the Weekly that “competing campaigns” — mainly the presidential race — have steered money away, and the economic downturn has slowed down contributions. He said “No on 8” officials didn’t anticipate “the extent [the Mormon Church] would be funneling so much money into the [“Yes on 8”] campaign.”
In a recent interview with the Sacramento Bee, ProtectMarriage.com campaign manager Frank Schubert, who leads the “Yes on 8” effort, revealed how significantly the experts had underestimated Mormon interest in the measure. According to Schubert, individual members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, one of the most family-oriented religions in the country, had donated nearly 40 percent of all contributions in support of Prop. 8.
Mark Paredes, the high counselor in the Mormon Church, believes that staggering number may be even higher.
“No on 8” was underfunded and outmatched. During an October 7 conference call with the press, Kors conceded that the lack of funds had left the movement unable to buy enough crucial TV ads, the best way to reach millions of voters in a very pricey California media market. The “Yes on 8” advertisement, which Kors blamed for an ugly shift in the polls, ran unchallenged by “No on 8” for at least a week — often a disastrous strategy for ballot measures.
The steady stream of bad news ultimately shook things up inside the “No on 8” campaign. By mid-October, campaign manager Dale Kelly Bankhead was quietly pushed aside, and former Log Cabin Republicans president Patrick Guerriero was installed as “campaign director” — a rich irony, since gay Republicans are often vilified by the leftist majority that dominates California gay politics. To take on the job, Guerriero took a temporary leave of absence from the Gill Action Fund, a highly influential and effective gay political fund-raising group, where he was executive director.
With all of the turmoil, Prop. 8 may seem to be the winner. But according to two seasoned political consultants, a Democrat and a Republican who could write entire books on the California mind-set, “Yes on 8” faces an uphill battle. Democratic political strategist Darry Sragow says, “From my experience, most Californians are not liberal but libertarian, [and feel] that government needs to stay out of people’s lives. I think that favors the “No on 8” camp.”
Sragow says both campaigns have effective TV ads that press emotional buttons and exploit the government-intrusion angle. But voters look for cues about which TV ads seem more believable, and Sragow says the “No on 8” message appears “more credible.” “I think the public will wonder if the allegations ‘Yes on 8’ makes are true,” such as the charge that children would automatically be taught about gay marriage in school, Sragow says.
Republican political strategist Arnold Steinberg, however, believes “Yes on 8” was doomed from the get-go. “An effective proposition campaign is run from the outset,” Steinberg tells the Weekly in an e-mail. “That is, put on the right ballot [and] framed properly. Proposition 8 was a nonstarter because it was, quite simply, put on the wrong ballot [November]. Consequently, it was worded pejoratively [by California Attorney General Jerry Brown]. It would have been a near-certain winner on the [June] primary ballot and worded, at least, objectively.”
Steinberg also notes that “Yes on 8” seems “unable to define the ‘yes’ side as affirming the status quo; rather, Proposition 8 appears to be radical, when, in fact, it is not. Since a risk-averse electorate does not want to deny rights, Proposition 8 will lose.” In addition, “No matter what happens nationally,” Steinberg writes, “McCain loses California.” The Democratic Party–financed mailers the voters are receiving will likely all unify against Proposition 8. “The few conservative and Republican [mailers] will be no match. Moreover, Proposition 8, framed ineptly by its sponsors, will do poorly among the state’s growing number of independent voters, far more numerous in the general election than in the primary.”
Still, ProtectMarriage.com spokeswoman Sonya Eddings Brown says the “Yes on 8” campaign is “surging,” so far raising nearly $26 million, and having distributed 1 million “Yes on 8” lawn signs up and down California. “We’re very well-organized, very well-financed and very passionate,” says Brown, a former TV producer in Los Angeles. In comparison to the successful effort behind Prop. 22, which banned same-sex marriage in 2000, the spokeswoman says, “We’ve never had a grass-roots organization of this size.”
On October 22, the Public Policy Institute of California released to the media its latest poll on Prop. 8. Because the institute is known for its accurate, unbiased polling methods, both sides of the battle are anxious to read PPIC’s findings. On August 27, PPIC had found that likely voters against the gay-marriage ban outnumbered supporters of the ban by 14 percentage points — 54 percent to 40 percent. On September 24, another PPIC poll reflected similar numbers, with 55 percent against Prop. 8 and 41 percent in favor.
Now, with less than two weeks until Election Day, the institute’s long-awaited numbers show things have tightened up, with 52 percent of likely voters in their poll opposing the ban and 44 percent supporting it.
“It’s getting closer,” says Mark Baldassare, president and chief executive officer of the Public Policy Institute of California, “but still, a majority of voters are opposed.”
When asked not about the ban itself but how they feel about same-sex marriage, likely voters flip-flop, suddenly opposing gay marriage by 49 percent to 47 percent. “It’s pointing to the fact that the electorate is closely divided on this issue,” Baldassare says.
But with 67 percent of likely Democratic voters opposing the ban, and Democratic turnout for Barack Obama expected to be big, Baldassare suspects that gay-marriage supporters are well positioned for victory. “What happens with the turnout of the presidential election will have a huge impact,” he says. “That’s really the key.”