Setting the (Gay) Wedding Table
At 7 p.m. on a clear, balmy night in West Hollywood, the gym bunnies, drag queens, high school and college students, power gays, lipstick lesbians, middle-aged activists, blue jean–wearing bears and assorted gay friendlies had gathered once again. The nighttime rally on May 26 was the last, soul-aching event of a day filled with press conferences and protests, where gay-rights leaders and their straight allies denounced the California Supreme Court’s ruling that upheld Proposition 8 and finally banned, without question, gay marriage in the Golden State.
“We come from a stock of people who have been thrown down but are ready to get up and fight — again and again and again,” West Hollywood City Councilman John Duran yelled into a microphone as he stood on a flatbed truck parked in the middle of San Vicente Boulevard near the Pacific Design Center.
The crowd of several thousand people clapped and cheered, and then Lt. Dan Choi, who had recently been discharged from the Army because he came out as a gay man on national television, took the mike, declaring, “I’m a soldier! And love is worth fighting for!”
Newspaper photographers aimed their cameras and snapped away, radio reporters held up their microphones, TV-news cameramen shot as much coverage as they could, and print journalists and bloggers scribbled in their notebooks or tapped on BlackBerries. The heart-wrenching scene, where gay and lesbian couples held each other tightly, some with children sitting on their shoulders, looked like past sad nights following gay-rights losses. But whether people knew it or not, something much larger was playing out before the crowd and press — a new campaign to pass a pro–gay marriage ballot measure in California was making its prime-time debut.
From celebrities Drew Barrymore and Kathy Griffin, who stepped up to the microphone on the flatbed, to a married gay couple sharing their story about raising an adopted son, to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, speaking in Spanish to the Latino community, to the Rev. Eric Lee of the Southern Christian Leadership Council of Los Angeles, offering prayer and support, the rallies and press conferences unfolding throughout L.A. on the same day were a well-orchestrated single event meant to reach out to California voters and to set the table for a gay-marriage victory at the ballot box in 2010 or 2012.
“You need to talk to people’s compassion and empathy,” says Darry Sragow, a respected Democratic consultant in Los Angeles, “so the best spokespeople for this kind of campaign are gays and lesbians and their straight friends and family.”
The coordinated effort in West Hollywood and throughout California, including a gay-marriage summit of sorts in conservative, farming-oriented Fresno on May 30, showcased the kind of campaign structure many gay-marriage advocates want to see built for the new ballot measure, in which cash-rich, mainstream gay-rights organizations work closely with their less wealthy grass-roots counterparts.
“The campaign will be wildly different from the last time around,” says Torie Osborn, former executive director of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center and co-founder of Camp Courage, a training seminar for grass-roots activists that’s been traveling around the state. “It will unleash this growing, and huge, grass-roots effort.”
But things aren’t all smiles and sunshine in the gay-rights world in California. Hard feelings from the “No on 8” campaign’s failures still linger in the gay-rights movement, and very different grass-roots and mainstream organizations, such as Equality California and Courage Campaign, are jockeying for a better position so they can ensure themselves a seat at the campaign’s power table. Activists of all stripes differ on what kind of political pro should be tapped to actually run the campaign.
And, while all of this has been playing out, a little-known gay-rights group based in politically savvy Sacramento has suddenly become a major power broker — by very cleverly and very quietly filing the first official ballot language for a pro–gay marriage measure for 2010.
“We really see ourselves as moderators of the situation,” says Chaz Lowe of Sacramento, co-founder of a brash new group that is taking action without waiting for the old guard — Yes on Equality. “That way, there doesn’t have to be infighting between Equality California and the Courage Campaign.”
The gym bunnies, bears, drag queens, power gays and lipstick lesbians in West Hollywood and California want a winning campaign to restore their legal right to marry. Some of them may not closely follow the inside moves of their own civil rights movement, but what unfolds now is critical. The decisions made in the coming weeks, and the leaders who emerge, will lay the foundation for the defeat or victory of a pro–gay marriage ballot measure.
Robin McGehee, a plain-talking, hard-charging lesbian and mother of two, typifies the new grass-roots movement in California’s gay-rights struggle. A 35-year-old college professor in Fresno, McGehee married her longtime partner when it was still legal and threw herself into the anti–Proposition 8 cause. After she spoke at a “No on 8” rally in her hometown last fall, Roman Catholic church officials took away her position as president of the parent-teacher association at her son’s Catholic elementary school.
“Everyone at the PTA knew I was gay,” says McGehee, “and I never hid it from them. No one had a problem with it until after I made the speech.”
The mother was crushed, especially when she felt compelled to take her son out of that school and away from his friends. What made matters worse, she says, is that she felt “abandoned” by the “No on 8” campaign, which had no field operation in Fresno. When Proposition 8 was passed in November, and talk started up about a pro–gay marriage ballot measure for the 2010 or 2012 elections if the California Supreme Court upheld the same sex–marriage ban, McGehee decided a strong grass-roots effort where no one is left behind was the only way to go.
“I don’t want myself, or anyone else, to be fighting alone on the frontlines again,” she says.
McGehee also thinks the grass-roots work of knocking on doors and engaging in “individual conversations,” which was something the “No on 8” campaign failed to do in places like Fresno, is the best way to win over California voters who live far from San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“We have to look at the past so we can do things differently,” the college professor says, “or else we’ll just repeat history.”
To make sure the grass-roots movement has a voice in the next campaign, and to bring the message of full marriage equality to the often-ignored Central Valley, which strongly backed Prop. 8, McGehee became the lead organizer for last weekend’s “Meet in the Middle,” where gay-rights supporters networked, marched and canvassed Fresno neighborhoods on Saturday. In the true spirit of the grass-roots effort, McGehee charged $15,000 of the day’s expenses on her personal credit card.
“We should be organizing no matter what,” says McGehee, “not just for gay marriage. If we don’t, then that’s just being careless as a movement.”
McGehee, like a lot of other gay-rights activists, has strong opinions about where the new campaign, which has yet to become official, should head. “I hope we go back to the ballot box in 2010,” she says, “and it’s also my hope that it will be a community-based campaign.”
With a major push from grass-roots activists like McGehee in Fresno, Lowe of Yes on Equality in Sacramento, and others, 2010 is the favored year of nearly every power player in the gay-rights movement.
“We have momentum right now,” says Torie Osborn, who recently decided that 2010 is the best year to go back to voters, “and I don’t think you can sneeze at that. This is the social-justice issue of the moment.”
Osborn, who worked as a volunteer for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign last fall, says the gay-rights movement doesn’t really have any other choice. With Obama almost certainly running for re-election in 2012, a pro–gay marriage initiative that same year would be competing for the very same political contributors and volunteers to man the phones and walk the precincts. Osborn says: “The Obama folks [are] with us,” but they will only be truly free to hit the streets in 2010, not in 2012, when much of their effort will focus on presidential politics.
For these reasons and others, Equality California, a well-funded heavyweight in the gay-rights movement, and Courage Campaign, an increasingly powerful gay-rights/politically progressive organization with grass-roots origins that saw its membership rise dramatically after the Proposition 8 loss, are also pushing for 2010. “I’ve never seen in my years in marriage equality the energy and willingness to do the work,” says Marc Solomon, recently hired director of the same-sex marriage project at Equality California, who believes those impulses may fizzle out by 2012.
Rick Jacobs, L.A.-based founder of Courage Campaign, points to the buzz surrounding same-sex marriage and other gay-rights issues, like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which outlaws openly gay men and women from serving in the military. “LGBT equality has become fashionable,” Jacobs says. “Equality is in, and discrimination is out.” Jacobs, who works with Osborn on the Camp Courage training seminars, believes that young people — gay and straight — want to hit the streets now. While Jacobs had been concerned about being able to put a solid grass-roots movement in place in time for 2010, he now thinks the building momentum should be capitalized upon immediately.
But while major players agree that 2010 is the year, there is lingering tension, even some distrust, between Equality California and other groups. Much of that stems from Equality California’s widely criticized role in the failed “No on 8” campaign, as well as recent behind-the-scenes moves.
Those who criticize Equality California and the other mainstream groups that led the “No on 8” effort (including the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Human Rights Campaign and the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center) say these organizations ran an arrogant, “nontransparent,” “top-down” campaign. That campaign, many believe, failed to utilize the passions and talents of a diverse gay community eager to defeat Proposition 8, and utterly missed the need, for example, to address the brewing unease among Latinos and blacks, many of whom voted against gay marriage.
“People were given two options,” says Scott Schmidt, vice-president of the Log Cabin Republicans of Los Angeles, and a “No on 8” campaign veteran. “Either write a big check or work the phone bank.”
Schmidt and other critics say those options didn’t encourage people’s creativity or engage them politically. It also didn’t make for much of a grass-roots campaign, and they don’t want that to happen again. With Equality California still pushing to be a central force in the new gay-marriage campaign, activists are concerned.
“Trust is not taken, it’s earned,” Jacobs says of Equality California. “I want to work with them, we need to work with them. But everybody has to be accountable for their work.”
McGehee says, “I feel very much in the dark with Equality California. I know what the Courage Campaign wants to do. I’ve seen them at work. But when Equality California talks about “collaboration,” it’s unclear what that collaboration means.”
McGehee has already had a dustup with San Francisco–based Equality California Executive Director Geoff Kors, who told gay-rights activists that he was helping to pay for buses to bring people to Fresno for Meet in the Middle. When word got back to McGehee, she was astounded — Equality California had given her nothing for those buses, but Courage Campaign had given her nearly $9,000 to cover that cost. McGehee says she went to Kors and asked what was up. Ultimately, Equality California sent her a $1,000 check to pay for porta-potties.
Equality California’s recent hiring of Marc Solomon, a Boston activist unfamiliar with California’s far more complex political impulses, also has people nervous. Solomon was executive director of MassEquality, which led the successful effort to keep gay marriage legal in Massachusetts — a far simpler battle in a much more racially and culturally homogenous state than California. While gay-rights activists respect Solomon, they see the hire as a power move by Geoff Kors to position Solomon as the campaign manager, someone who would then call the shots in 2010.
“Geoff has been trying to emerge as a leader in the next campaign,” says Torie Osborn. “We need everybody, but he won’t be running the campaign.”
As it became more evident that the California Supreme Court would uphold Proposition 8, and that the gay community would aim for the ballot in 2010, Sacramento’s Yes on Equality suddenly crashed onto the scene — in a very big way. When no one was really looking, the little-known gay-rights group, with origins in the grass-roots movement, met with top legislative lawyers in Sacramento, the unofficial headquarters of California’s influential ballot-writing legal experts. Early this year, the smallish group filed language with the California Attorney General for a strong pro–gay marriage measure for 2010.
Operating largely below the radar in the state’s capital, it had beaten all the better-known but slower-moving gay-rights groups to the punch.
According to Chaz Lowe, the language seeks to remove Proposition 8 from the California constitution and legalize same-sex marriage, while also clarifying that gay marriage will not be a part of the mandatory curriculum in public schools, and religious leaders will not be forced to marry same-sex couples — two sticking points that the “Yes on 8” campaign used to their benefit last fall.
While other gay-rights groups can offer their own, competing language to the state Attorney General for a pro–gay marriage ballot measure, the deadline for the 2010 primary has already passed, and Yes on Equality is the only organization holding a spot on that ballot. Now, groups such as Equality California and Courage Campaign have to play ball with Yes on Equality.
“If, say, Equality California went off and filed their own language for subsequent elections,” says Lowe, “it would look like they’re doing their own thing, and that would be a problem for them.” Solomon emphatically assured L.A. Weekly: “Equality California is not going to move forward on its own thing. We’re a team player in this.” Solomon and Kors have made similar public statements in recent weeks.
Lowe says other gay-rights groups face the same public-relations problem if they file their own language, creating a public spat and confusing the potential donors and voters. Courage Campaign and Marriage Equality USA, another player in the gay-rights movement, with chapters in San Francisco and Los Angeles, have been talking with Lowe about creating a fully transparent campaign committee and hiring the best campaign manager. But meanwhile, Kors and Solomon approached Lowe and asked if he and his colleagues wanted to join Equality California — as paid staffers. Lowe, again following his own path, turned them down.
Says Lowe: “I told them our hearts and minds are with building a coalition” — a subtle way of saying San Francisco– and L.A.-based Equality California is not the boss.
Lowe himself plans to organize a campaign committee of grass-roots groups and mainstream organizations by the end of June. “We want to make sure not only that people have a seat at the table,” he says, “but groups in rural areas have access to money and campaigning tools.” Then, in July, Yes on Equality wants to hire a campaign manager, after full input from the newly created campaign committee. “We want to create a team as quickly as possible because we know that every day matters at this point,” says Lowe.
Solomon, in the meantime, says Equality California “isn’t going to introduce its own ballot language.” But he believes relative newcomer Lowe may be getting ahead of himself. “We need a strong plan for campaign structure,” says Solomon. “I don’t think we’re at a place to discuss structure yet.”
When asked by the Weekly if Courage Campaign would write its own ballot-measure language, and if Sacramento-based Yes on Equality is suddenly in a unique power position, Rick Jacobs replied in an e-mail: “We are going to work with the community to take back our rights. This is not the province of any one organization. Courage [Campaign] exists solely to empower the grass-roots and net roots, to build the movement.”
David Mixner, longtime gay-rights activist and Democratic political insider, has won important gay-rights battles in his time. In 1978, he was the statewide campaign consultant for the effort that defeated, with the help of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, the Briggs Initiative, which would have banned gays and lesbians from teaching in California’s public schools. In 1986, Mixner was a senior adviser for the successful campaign that stopped California’s Proposition 64, which gay-rights activists said would have forced people with HIV/AIDS into quarantine. Mixner now lives in New York state. He stays in touch with gay-rights leaders in California, and though he’s something of an outside observer, he still has ideas about how an effective pro–gay marriage campaign should be run.
“We need a first-rate media campaign,” says Mixner, backed up by a “massive” grass-roots effort. “We need to go out to San Bernardino and introduce ourselves.” But, the activist warns, the first political ads should steer completely away from messages that make the gay community “feel good” or try to convince the public that they should like gays and lesbians.
“You can have gay people in the ads,” Mixner says, “but the message they deliver is important. It’s not about liking us. We so often make the mistake that we need people to like us, but it’s really about getting their vote. Harvey Milk understood this. It’s all about winning.” Mixner suggests that the first political ads should make voters feel as if they have a vested interest in the outcome of the campaign. “We have to make sure that they understand that if we lose, they lose,” he says.
Darry Sragow, the Los Angeles–based Democratic consultant, wholly agrees. “There’s a tendency to preach to the choir. Don’t do that.” And while he believes that grass-roots outreach is needed, Sragow also says it’s extremely difficult in a large and diverse state like California. “Grass-roots is important,” he says, “but how do you do that? It’s very hard because you need to talk with the right people, the 10 or 15 percent of the people who haven’t made up their minds.”
Marc Solomon, who’s new to California politics, says, “We need to have thousands of conversations at people’s doorsteps.” His idea of effective messaging tends to fall on the feel-good side. “The message is about the truth,” he says. “That same-sex couples want to get married because they are committed to each other and they don’t want anything different from any other family.”
Interestingly, Matthew Mishory, a 20-something L.A. film director who independently made online political ads for the “No on 8” cause, is exploring a message that’s closer to Mixner’s. “We need to engage people with the tangible results of their votes,” Mishory says. “If [anti–gay marriage forces] talk about harm to schoolchildren, we should talk about children and show people that their children may some day need LGBT rights. If they talk about families, then we need to talk about families and how they are going to be harmed.”
Mishory adds, “I don’t think many of the people who voted against us necessarily understood what their votes meant to their gay neighbors or family members.”
But if they’re to have a hope of winning, these groups must fend off tough political ads and be ready for smart moves by anti–gay marriage forces, who are already flexing their muscle by drawing 3,000 demonstrators to Fresno last Sunday — just one day after the “Meet in the Middle” rally.
“What’s loosely referred to as the ‘war room’ is critical,” says Sragow. “But you hit them back quickly and correctly.”
Last fall, the “No on 8” campaign was widely criticized for failing to react quickly and decisively to attack ads. Fred Karger, founder of Californians Against Hate, took up the very basic task of researching the opposition when he realized “no one seemed to be doing it” — a huge, amateurish oversight.
The “No on 8” campaign “went a different way,” Karger says, “showing the loving couples.”
So Karger, a retired political consultant, started looking into the major donors to the “Yes on 8” campaign. “I wanted to make these people accountable,” he says. Karger then created a “dishonor roll” for his Web site and during this process noticed a big influx of cash from people whose names he didn’t recognize. After a little digging and cross-checking, he found that members of the Mormon church were contributing incredible amounts of money to “Yes on 8.” In October, he used his discovery to stir “No on 8” supporters into action. By that time, though, the “No on 8” campaign was back on its heels, and it never fully recovered.
In the end, the job of developing good political ads, knowing where to knock on doors, and coming up with effective opposition research falls on the shoulders of a solid campaign manager. That’s the “hire” that all the gay-rights leaders are obsessing over now.
Discussions range from whether the person should be gay to whether she or he should be familiar with California politics. Once again, many people are concerned that Geoff Kors and Equality California will leverage a guy who ran campaigns in far more predictable and manageable Massachusetts into the position.
Chaz Lowe says, “[Marc Solomon] definitely wants to play a major role in the campaign.”
“Marc came here to run the next campaign,” says Rick Jacobs. “It’s admirable, but we really need the best.”
Solomon talks ambivalently, in public, anyway, about filling that key position. He says he is building an “extremely experienced” team, hiring 25 field organizers and writing plans for a campaign structure and campaign funding. He insists that Equality California — with Solomon working from L.A. and Kors and the rest of the staff in San Francisco — will be “team players” with the other groups. But it seems hard to believe he moved to California only to sit at the table.
Gay-rights activists are not sure what to make of Solomon. Scott Schmidt says Solomon is “still learning about California.” Robin McGehee feels he isn’t qualified for a job that should be held by somebody with extensive experience running ballot campaigns in big, increasingly Latino and not always “liberal” California. Torie Osborn, who worked with David Mixner to defeat the Briggs Initiative and Proposition 64, says Solomon has “none of the skills” to run a California ballot measure. “God bless him,” she adds.
Sragow, though, says anyone hiring a campaign manager for a California ballot initiative faces slim pickings. “There are only a handful of firms in California that handle ballot measures,” he says. While Sragow doesn’t believe it is absolutely necessary for a campaign manager to be based in this state, a choice like Solomon still raises a “red flag.”
“Massachusetts and California have nothing to do with each other politically,” Sragow says. “People in Massachusetts wake up in the morning and talk about politics, but in California no one talks about politics that way. It’s very hard to get people’s attention. The political landscape is filled with consultants who came here from somewhere else and who have failed, and failed miserably.”
Whoever heads up the next gay marriage–rights campaign in California should expect an extremely bumpy ride. “It’s going to be a very difficult campaign,” warns Sragow.
Nearly seven months have passed since Robin McGehee made the speech in front of Fresno City Hall, which incurred the wrath of the Roman Catholic Church. And now, on a hot and humid Saturday afternoon, she stands on a stage, behind a microphone, at that same spot, for “Meet in the Middle.” But this time, 3,000 to 5,000 people have her back.
Ashley Swearengin, the new mayor of Fresno, declined to greet the racially and ethnically mixed, charged-up crowd of teenagers, straights, gays, activists and college students who traveled there not only from all of California’s key cities but also from New York, Cincinnati and Buffalo. Despite the snub, McGehee, who’s known as the “gay mayor of Fresno,” smiles at everyone.
“If you look at that banner,” she says, pointing at a huge rainbow flag, “that’s how you win in 2010.”
McGehee then challenges President Obama, who has been silent about the California Supreme Court’s Proposition 8 ruling, even though he had an opportunity to do so when he attended a major fund-raiser for himself and the Democratic National Committee in Beverly Hills last week, a day after the decision.
“Show me you have the courage to produce change,” McGehee urges Obama, with TV news cameras and newspaper reporters catching every word, “the change that I believed in.”
McGehee and a handful of other gay-rights activists in Fresno have already started the journey toward change. Over the past three months, they have knocked on the doors of about 1,000 homes in this agricultural-based city, asking people to support gay marriage.
In a town that overwhelmingly supported Proposition 8, where influential minister and talk-show host Jim Franklin has railed against same-sex marriage, and where the political establishment refuses to be seen in public with gay-marriage advocates, knocking on doors was a bold effort. People have taken notice. The day after “Meet in the Middle” was held, leaders opposed to gay marriage held their own rally in Fresno.
Even though it’s more than a year away, and a pro–gay marriage ballot measure is not yet official, the battle for the votes of ordinary Californians has, without question, already commenced.
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter