Queer Democrats Can’t Agree on Marriage Strategy

author: 
Mark Gabrish Conlan/Zenger's

Queer Democrats Can’t Agree on Marriage Strategy

Club’s Debate Mirrors Struggle in the Broader California Community

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club proved as bitterly divided as the rest of the state’s Queer community over when to take the marriage equality issue back to the ballot when it discussed the matter at its regular meeting September 24. The meeting stretched out longer than 2 1/2 hours and featured a two-part program, a discussion with various resource people from the rival groups involved — statewide organizations Equality California and the Courage Campaign, as well as local grass-roots efforts — followed by an open forum for club members and guests moderated by a professional mediator. Though the club hadn’t planned to take any action, two motions were made — and soundly defeated — as the debate wound down.

The controversy was set up when California voters approved Proposition 8 by a five percentage-point margin last November and thereby stopped the state from performing or recognizing same-sex marriages. A California Supreme Court ruling in May 2009 upheld the proposition but also ruled it that could not apply retroactively; the estimated 18,000 same-sex couples who tied the knot legally in the 4 1/2 months between June and November 2008 were still officially married. The defeats at the polls and in court sparked a statewide debate over whether to mount an initiative campaign to repeal Proposition 8 at the polls in 2010 or 2012 — and the two major statewide organizations not only came out on opposite sides of that question but started mounting separate campaigns. Equality California opted to wait until 2012, largely because the felt the money to do a statewide campaign was not likely to be forthcoming at the height of the recession, while the Courage Campaign not only opted for 2010 but started a drive and essentially dared the rest of the state’s Queer activists to join them.

The emotional urgency with which the Courage Campaign and its local grass-roots supporters view the issue was very much on display at the September 24 meeting. The group’s Southern California manager, Arisha Hatch, kicked off the program and compared the nay-sayers on 2010 to people in the African-American community who questioned the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama that launched the modern civil rights movement in 1955 and those in 2007 who said Barack Obama could never be elected president because the U.S. wasn’t ready for an African-American in the White House.

“There is no easy answer,” said Hatch. “Nobody knows when the best time will be. We have wasted three months debating instead of organizing. Our members voted overwhelmingly for 2010. We’ve asked for money to do research because it’s going to require the most researched, micro-targeted, data-driven campaign in history. The research, the focus groups and the information can give us what we need to move forward.”

Sara Beth Brooks of the San Diego Equality Campaign reported on a meeting held September 21 at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center in San Diego at which she was elected one of the three representatives from San Diego to the 2010 campaign effort. “We’ve been meeting for five months, talking and reading 1,800 e-mails every week,” she said. “The Courage Campaign, Marriage Equality USA and Equality California all took polls of their members, and every group voted for 2010. We have already submitted the ballot language for an initiative.”

Presenting the decision to go in 2010 as a fait accompli and essentially daring the more skeptical people in the community to join or get out of the way, Brooks boasted that they had already approved an organizing plan for San Diego and are ready to act. “We need three things,” she said. “We need you to sign up and volunteer, go to our Web site and sign up for the newsletter, and most of all, we need you to donate to pay for the Web site, buttons and stickers. Everyone on this campaign is a volunteer. We have built a regional structure. We need to gather a large number of signatures in a specific period of time. We have 150 days to collect 1.2 million signatures. That works out to 12,000 people getting 100 signatures each. I think we can find these people and do an all-volunteer signature gathering. I hope you will make your donation today.”

Fernando Lopez of Marriage Equality USA, who got involved in the issue when he was barred from seeing his husband in the hospital, said that his was an educational group rather than a political one and therefore had stayed out of the 2010 versus 2012 debate. “We will continue to work on this effort no matter how long it takes,” he pledged. After Proposition 8 passed, many people took off in December and got back in January, doing street canvassing in areas in which we lost Proposition 8 and identified supporters. We held ‘get-engaged’ town-hall meetings to find out what the community members wanted to see.”

According to Fernando Lopez, one reason his group didn’t take a position on whether to go back to the ballot in 2010 or 2012 is “our members are quite divided” on the issue. “In January, we began the ‘Meeting of the Minds Coalition,’ which brought together a lot of the organizations working for marriage equality who were not collaborating. Later we added door-to-door canvassing with a persuasion model from Los Angeles, targeting communities that voted 45 to 55 percent yes on 8, and then we moved the work to communities that voted 55 to 70 percent yes. It takes a lot of work, but people are persuadable. We have phone banks for volunteer recruitment and fundraising, we have street canvassing and on Sundays we do door-to-door work. We’re starting satellite street canvassing in North County in three weeks.”

Zakiya Khabir of San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (SAME) announced that she’s one of 12 people elected to the board of the statewide organization Restore Equality 2010, the group that will coordinate next year’s campaign. “Our organization is about 25 days old, and in our short history we’ve set up a Web site and a bank account. We’ve organized regional town-hall meetings in seven of the 10 regions and are electing representatives statewide. It’s historic that this is the first statewide grass-roots organization for LGBT [Queer] rights. This will lay the groundwork for future struggles, because there are issues beyond marriage.”

Like the other speakers involved in the 2010 campaign, Khabir criticized the No on 8 campaign in 2008 for “putting aside” volunteers “who had ideas to reach out to the communities of color and rural areas. We all understand that it’s a mistake that should never happen again.” Correcting the impression Brooks had given in her remarks that the actual text of the ballot measure for 2010 was a done deal, Khabir added, “One version of the ballot language has been submitted. Our research will play a role in determining what we actually promote in November. There are donation forms and sign-in sheets here tonight. We have to build more coalitions with unions and the women’s equality movement.”

The two speakers supporting waiting until 2012 were Luis Lopez from the Los Angeles-based HONOR PAC, which he said was the first political action committee anywhere in the U.S. specifically representing Queer Latinos; and Marc Solomon, marriage equality organizer for Equality California (EQCA). “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done” to repeal Proposition 8, said Luis Lopez, “and we need the time to do it right. We have come to the decision that 2012 is the better year. A few months ago we realized there was silence in this community. We went to LGBT communities of color and researched issues in a document called Prepared to Prevail. We also identifies a lot of non-Gay allies that shared the same positions.”

Quoting the famous aphorism that everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not to their own facts, Luis Lopez pointed out that despite the massive community activism since Proposition 8 passed, the poll numbers haven’t changed. If it were voted on today, the polls say, it would pass by the same margin by which it actually did almost a year ago. He also referred to the difficulty of raising money in the middle of a recession — especially when many of the big donors to No on 8 say that their portfolios have lost half their value in the crash of the housing and finance sectors of the economy — and said “we haven’t done the work we need to do in the communities” to have a reasonable chance to persuade voters to support marriage equality.

Solomon recalled his work as a field organizer on this issue in Massachusetts starting in 2001, when “people — including people in our own community — thought we were crazy” for promoting marriage equality as an issue. When the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that the state’s constitution forbade marriage discrimination against same-sex couples, “we looked the Roman Catholic Church and [then-Governor] Mitt Romney in the eye” to protect the court victory. “We organized every step of the way and moved public opinion from 47 to 60 percent in support of marriage equality” — though he didn’t mention they were helped immeasurably by the Massachusetts constitution, which unlike California’s does not allow the people to put a measure on the ballot to amend it without support from the state’s legislature.

“I came to California after Proposition 8 passed in 2008 and intended to work for 2010,” Solomon said. “Then I talked to people of color and family groups. I’m here to endorse a three-year campaign. I think we have one shot in the next three years. You can’t do this every two years. We haven’t had any change in the polls, despite all the protests and the activism. We have to reach out to voters in other ways.” Like Luis Lopez, Solomon cited the unwillingness — and, in some cases, the inability — of many big donors to No on 8 to contribute again on the scale that would be required to raise another $40 million war chest.

“Everything we know about moving on this issue is that it has to be cultural, not political,” Solomon said. “For the first time in our history, we get to choose when to go to the ballot instead of our opponents. Let’s do the work in the communities of color and across the state, and let’s win this once and for all.”

Between the two official portions of the meeting, club president Larry Baza called on Carlos Marquez, representing the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center, for an explanation of the Center’s position. After mentioning that the Center’s main priority at the moment is raising money from private sources to make up for the severe cuts in state AIDS funding— which so far has been successful — Marquez said, “Our board of directors had a long and hearty debate, and really decided this is not about timeliness. We really want to see the work being done and some benchmarks met, but we do not have the volunteer capacity to change folks’ minds by 2010. We haven’t endorsed 2012 either.”

Asked how they planned to raise $40 million for the statewide campaign whenever the issue goes to the ballot — $40 million was the figure each side spent in the Proposition 8 campaign — Solomon and Luis Lopez stressed the difficulty of fundraising in the middle of a recession. Luis Lopez said he’s hopeful the economy will have recovered by 2012 and therefore it will be easier then than in 2010. Khabir scornfully replied, “Banking on an economic recovery is a strategy that won’t work.” She said that a 2010 campaign would be cheaper because TV time would cost less, and argued that the division within the community is costing us a chance to nail down cheap TV ads we could be buying now.

“Unity brings clarity to donors,” Fernando Lopez said. Brooks argued that the ability of the Courage Campaign to raise $135,000 quickly just to do research spoke to the financial viability of a 2010 campaign and the willingness of grass-roots people to give to it. Hatch said her experience as a volunteer organizer for Obama’s Presidential campaign convinced her, too, that if you build it, the money will come.

Because of the night’s tight schedule, the only other question an audience member got to ask the panelists was about whether Barack Obama’s presence on the top of the ticket helped or hurt the campaign. “Pollsters analyzed the turnout models, and found a Presidential election is always better for us because it brings out more of the youth vote,” Solomon said. Luis Lopez agreed that, since polling data has consistently shown that the younger you are the more likely you are to support marriage equality, and said that waiting until 2012 will not only move the age mix of the electorate more in our favor but give us more time to organize college students and young Latinos.

The grass-roots people on the panel were far more skeptical about the polling data. Fernando Lopez pointed out that despite the reports that African-American and Latino voters were actually more likely to vote for Proposition 8 than whites, later surveys revealed that the chief factor determining their votes was religion, not race. Brooks pointed out that in 1949, when California became the first state in the U.S. to strike down its law against interracial marriage, polls at the time revealed that 90 percent of Californians were against the decision. Hatch said the decision whether to go in 2010 or 2012 “shouldn’t be made on the basis of one poll in May,” and nobody knows whether they’ll be as big a youth turnout to support Obama’s re-election in 2012 as there was to elect him in the first place in 2008.

The club members’ debate followed similar lines to the panel discussion. Supporters of a 2010 campaign saw the issue in emotional terms — “I can’t wait,” said former San Diego County Democratic Party chair Maureen Steiner — and also wondered how the people advocating waiting until 2012 will keep the energy going to educate voters over three years without the deadline of a 2010 campaign to push people into activism. Other 2010 supporters referenced the Obama campaign as an example of how energy and determination accomplished something many political experts said was impossible.

Sean Bohack, who was elected to the steering committee along with Brooks at the September 21 meeting at the Center, listed “three reasons I’m working on 2010. First, we already have hundreds of people working on a statewide campaign. Second, four months ago a poll that asked about marriage equality showed we gained six points when we reiterated that religious groups’ rights would be protected. The last thing is that in 2010 we will have either Gavin Newsom or Jerry Brown, both strong supporters of marriage equality, at the top of the statewide ticket. In 2012 we will have to deal with Obama and the messages he’s put out that he does not support marriage equality.”

Speaking on his own behalf and not representing the Center, Carlos Marquez came out for 2012. “There are severe implications if we lose in 2010,” he said. “When our community loses at the polls, more people in schools get victimized by Queer-bashers. Energy will be depleted if we lose in 2010, and we won’t be able to get our rights back for a long time.” Former club president Doug Case agreed with Marquez that a 2010 defeat will eliminate the chance for a 2012 victory, saying the electorate will be tired of the issue and contributions for a third campaign (a fourth one, if you count the initial defeat when Proposition 22 passed in March 2000) will be virtually impossible.

“Regardless of when we go, we can’t go into it afraid of losing,” said Hatch when the panelists were given an opportunity to respond to the club debate. “I don’t think the world ends if we lose in 2010. Obama didn’t win the California primary in 2008 but he left an infrastructure that carried the state in the general election. The world keeps spinning, and we will continue to fight no matter what. It’s been difficult to get volunteers. It’s a difficult environment to organize in. The question for people is can you create the necessary sense of urgency if there isn’t a campaign in 2010.”

Solomon reminded people that there’s actually going to be an election on this in 2009 — not in California but in Maine, where the state legislature passed a marriage equality law and the Right has a referendum on the ballot in November to repeal it. “They are very short of funds,” he warned, calling on club members not only to donate but, if they can, to go to Maine and volunteer on the ground.

Though the club’s newsletter had only advertised a discussion, not a vote, two club members made proposals for action. Kelli King asked that the club form a committee to study the issue and report back to the next meeting with a recommendation for action. That was opposed by many of the club’s board members — usually it’s the board, not an ad hoc committee, that makes recommendations for club action — and also by member Brian Polejes, who said, “My sense of the room is most of the members want to go in one direction.”

After King’s motion was voted down 30 to 12, with one abstention, Polejes made a motion to suspend the club’s bylaws to allow the meeting to hold a vote one way or the other. (Usually club members must be told that an issue will be voted on at a meeting at least one month in advance, generally through the club’s newsletter.) Polejes acknowledged that his motion would need a two-thirds vote to pass, but it didn’t get even a majority; it was defeated, 32 to 16.

The club’s long debate on marriage equality and the proper timing for an effort to repeal Proposition 8 took away from the appearance of Dave Jones, state Assemblymember from Sacramento and 2010 candidate for insurance commissioner. Jones discussed his past as a Legal Aid Society lawyer and a Sacramento City Councilmember, his record of support for Queer issues — including co-authoring the bill to have California honor the birthday of the late Queer activist and politician Harvey Milk — his support of single-payer health care and his pledge to use the insurance commissioner’s office to curb abuses by health insurance companies.

The marriage equality issue also forced the club to delay for the second month in a row a decision on a controversial initiative being pushed by the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU) to impose term limits on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. SEIU representatives, some of whom are also club members, brought this up in September hoping that the club would endorse it quickly while they’re still gathering signatures to get it on the ballot. But members balked in September, partly out of concern that the initiative might “hobble” progressive Democrats if they win election to the board, and partly for many members out of their long-standing opposition to term limits in general. At the suggestion of SEIU, former club president Jeri Dilno moved for a postponement of the issue until next January, when the county supervisors’ elections will be discussed and endorsements made.
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L to R: Marc Solomon, Luis Lopez, Zakiya Khabir, Fernando Lopez, Sara Beth Brooks, Arisha Hatch