The California LGBT community is in the throes of a transformation, catalyzed by the movement for marriage equality. In addition to the important Ted Olson-David Boies challenge to Prop 8, new grassroots and institutional LGBT organizations are struggling with each other over when and how to return to the ballot box to repeal Prop 8 in a state that is issuing IOUs. Since I was apparently the only full time reporter covering the statewide LGBT Leadership Summit, I want to report back as fully as possible. My report is being published in three parts:
- The demographics that challenge recent blog reports
- Advice from political consultants and how that was received
- An interview with a California Democratic Party big-wig who went largely unnoticed at the summit but who may play a significant role in the future
Richie Ross, who got his organizational training from Cesar Chavez and the United Farm workers, emphasized the importance of "marrying politics with the acknowledgment of culture." He noted the independence of empowered youth who "reject packaging" and "make choices not politically but culturally" - getting angry or upset over not being able to choose whom you can marry, for instance.
Ross also noted that "the future of this state is brown" and that the new majority of Latinos believe that "church is where you get married," even if you've legally tied the knot at city hall. The significance of this distinction and the "power of culture" are important, he said.
The Courage Campaign's Sarah Callahan said, "you don't win elections on the natch, period." However, "we can't let the clock determine when we go back. But that clock is ticking, ticking, ticking." She outlined what it would take to win:
- Convince two out of three of persuadable voters;
- Motivate the base, adding that younger voters are the "critical universe" and the "most endanger of not participating in the next election;"
- Convince those whose minds have been changed to stay changed;
- Voter registration
Callahan also said the governance structure of the campaign requires a small number of "seasoned" people - not associated with any one organization - who are trusted and accountable and who can get the campaign off the ground. "We're going to war, we need a general," she said. With that oversight, the campaign can then be not one but many campaigns "close to the ground," focused and targeted on the persuadable voters and using every available piece on technology to gather and share information.
Paul Mandabach, who has worked on 150 ballot measures in 22 states and over 50 "Yes" campaigns (the Repeal Prop 8 would be a "Yes" campaign) started off by debunking the conventional political wisdom that it is impossible starting out with favorable poll numbers at roughly 48%. 2012 would "probably be better" because fewer older people might vote - but it would be more expensive in a presidential campaign year. The question is: "do you let this fundamental, horrible injustice prevail for 3 years?" No matter what the decision, he said, it is imperative that the campaign research the design and language of the measure to try to anticipate any unforeseen consequences and develop a strategic plan on how to win and a baseline of fundraising before you file.
Establishing the Basics
Steve Kaplan, who worked on messaging for the Obama campaign (he also helped develop California's "Me Not Meth" ad campaign) said, "it's hard to tell anybody to wait" and no one knows what will happen in 2012. But, he said, there will likely be an anti-immigrant measure on the ballot in 2010 that will compete with a repeal effort for time, attention and funding.
Obama, Kaplan noted, had a plan, a strategy to target voters and that campaign "never wavered" for two years. "Without a consistent message, you will not win," he said. Additionally, Obama was "no-drama Obama" - he didn't allow infighting and "everyone was on board" to make sure that "everyone rowed in the same direction." Obama's campaign also did bi-partisan outreach and had a confident winning spirit.
Sheri Sadler, who worked with Jerry Brown's campaign and labor campaigns, talked extensively about how "2010 looks different than 2008," when 80% of the No on 8 campaign money went to media buys. The TV rates now are "hugely down," she said, 39% less than 2006. She said only $20 million would be needed for media "if you start now," book early and take advantage of special rates" before the 2012 presidential election makes air time competition tighter.
Ross pointed out that 1.1 million signatures would need to be gathered in order to get enough "good" signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot. He advised using the 18,000 same sex couples as part of the message campaign.
Callahan said to "just assume" the opposition will be well funded, with their built-in network of evangelicals. "Funders look for confidence and a winning plan. No one invests in chaos," she said. But "the money will come if you can show you can win."
Ross pointed out that Obama had a $900 million campaign and "a cadre of expert organizers he built like a big union." Doing a campaign "off the cuff" is "disrespecting the craft of organizing." He added that one-third of voters are people of color. "You're not going to win without moving them. And why would you want to? The word 'wait' is not on the table. But what is the time required to respectfully move people of color? You want to win this permanently."
Kaplan said it's also important to "embrace an inclusive message" which may mean compromise and "soothing some concerns." But "at the end of the day, it's about winning."
There was a brief question and answer period with the consultants and then some in the audience got boisterous, saying "we need to take back control of the room! We need to talk among ourselves." Almost as soon as the consultants completed their presentations, dismissive chatter started about how they were just there "auditioning" to be part of the campaign.
There's "More Work To Be Done"
Someone then called for a discussion about debunking Black and Latino homophobia. Someone else asked why African Americans and Latinos needed to be targeted anyway - couldn't they win without them? No one responded to that - letting the question die in the din of the ensuing confusion about time and the agenda.
Next up were Marriage Equality USA's Fern Lopez, Equality California Field Director Amy Mello, and the LA Gay & Lesbian Center Vote for Equality Director Regina Clemente on how their field canvassing projects are progressing - the bottom line of which was "there's more work to be done."
Then came Pam Brown to discuss Marriage Equality USA's Get Engaged Tour (the full report is here). After holding 40 town halls across the state to discuss the latest poll information and whether the community wants to go back to the ballot in 2010 or 2012 - the result was "no consensus," Brown said. There was consensus, however, in wanting "our leadership to come together" to develop a plan, a "road map to victory."
Some of the other conclusions were that people wanted:
- "a campaign we can be proud of" - that illustrates "our values" and that "we're fighting for the freedom to be who we are;"
- "an initiative we could vote for." People understood including a religious exemption, noting that the two marriage bills that passed the California Legislature also included a religious exemption. But there was "no support" for any language that impacted the school curriculum;
- they want to know the "nuts and bolts" of how to run a campaign and expressed gratitude for the Courage Campaign's trainings in Camp Courage;
- they want an online menu of volunteer opportunities. Going door to door in rural communities, for instance, doesn't work;
- they want to "be who we are" creatively - giving WhiteKnots.org as an example
Additionally, Brown said, the consensus of opinion was that people who advocate going to the ballot in 2010 need to listen to the concerns of the people who advocate 2012.
There was some brief discussion about whether a campaign structure was already in place, given the number of existing local and regional organizations - and couldn't they just do what Harvey Milk and the No on the Briggs Initiative did without a central campaign? Someone who worked on the Briggs Initiative said if Harvey did that now, he and the campaign would fail - and then he would start all over again the next day. No one mentioned the historical point that support for the Briggs Initiative dramatically declined after Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan wrote an op-ed saying he opposed the measure.
Youth and Schools
Next on the agenda were Judy Appel, executive director of Our Family Coalition, and Carolyn Laub, executive director of GSA (Gay Straight Alliance), who created something of a fuss when they called for the streaming video cameras to be shut off and reporters to leave the room. I said I was not leaving - but agreed to a compromise that what they said was off the record as long as I could interview them afterward. They said in their interview what they essentially said to the audience - which was that they were concerned about the cost of "proactively" putting anything remotely talking about youth on the ballot. (Read Appel's statement to the court supporting ACLU, Lambda Legal and NCLR's request to intervene in the Olson-Boies lawsuit brought to overturn Prop 8.)
Having language about the school curriculum allows the opposition to frame the debate, they said, and sets up a "cognitive dissonance" saying we want to win the right to marry but not the right to talk about that marriage with kids, as if same sex marriage is "shameful." "I don't think that's the way to win," Appel said.
There is also concern that any language on the ballot about youth and schools might have unforeseen legal consequences that could impact the safe schools movement and rollback existing progressive and protective laws. "We need to make sure we're not doing any harm," said Laub. "Safety is an issue."
That provoked an angry, though hurried response from Meet in the Middle organizer Robin McGehee.
"I agree that language should be eliminated that would in any way halter (sic) any discussions underway in public education that would shadow anything about our community or create an element for my children or any other children to be closeted or bullied or harassed. But the reality is that those children who don't want to be talked about in their school need to go to private school.
And with that, we should be saying to them that we need to send the same message that Carolyn said when she stood up here: we need to send a message to our youth that they are fully accepted and an equal part of our state and our country and we are unwilling to wait to defend them."
Then McGehee referred to a time when she worked for GSA Network that sounded as if she interpreted Appel and Laub's comments as saying not to discuss youth at all in winning back marriage equality - as opposed to what I understood them to be talking about which was not proactively adding language to the ballot initiative that would help the opposition to frame the debate. The ballot current with the Attorney General's office written and submitted by Yes on Equality's Chaz Lowe includes a provision that exempts school curriculums. Here's what McGehee said:
"Warnings from our school and our administrators working for GSA Network - when we would go into trainings, they would tell us from administrator down to students and teachers that when we did trainings, increasing bullying would happen. Not once did GSA Network ever say to me as an employee, 'We do not do the trainings because bullying will increase.' The reality is when you talk about these issues, we do put our youth at risk. But to delay that message is also putting them at risk."
The First Real Test of Leadership
The real problem, from my perspective, is that right now - and for the past seven months - the acrimony among institutional leaders and grassroots activists is only deepening. It's as if all the 8hate has been turned inward - we are the enemy, anyone who is not immediately, completely, absolutely with us now and forever more.
The rivers could part and a charismatic general who meets everyone's leadership criteria could emerge carrying unlimited funds and access to the latest technology and voter data bases - and still we'd fight and hurl nasty invective at our LGBT enemy in public - and do it with a self-satisfied sneer.
I was disappointed that no one during the entire seven hours talked about how the issue of marriage is "different" from any other social issue - different enough to enable a constitutional scholar such as Barack Obama to deny his previous belief in full equality and now embrace separate-but-equal civil unions because "God is in the mix." But one principle that both sides called for and all the consultants cited as necessary to win - was unity.
It seems to me that the first step to winning back marriage equality is finding a mediator who can help this community find common ground and learn to keep our eye on the prize so we can move forward together. There are now so many LGBT folk who want to be leaders - let this be their first real test of leadership: find a way to bring us together.