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 will be 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
A blog for the San Francisco Chronicle came out fairly quickly after Saturday's statewide LGBT "Leadership Summit" in San Bernardino, California with the results of a non-binding straw poll about when the LGBT community wants to return to the ballot to repeal Prop 8: "93 people voted to go in 2010, 49 in 2012 and 20 undecided."
I was there. The count's accurate but it's far from the whole story. What really happened was that a vote was taken around 5:00pm - an hour after the meeting was supposed to end and a good number of people had left - and 93 people voted for 2010 and 69 opposed that idea. The count was justified as being taken among those who cared enough to show up in San Bernardino in late July ("sweltering" is one word that comes to mind) and stay until the bitter end.
Let's look at the demographics.
At its height, the over-heated church hall was filled with about 250 grassroots activists, mostly from the San Diego and Los Angeles area - a point loudly noted by leaders from Northern California who were receiving text messages from friends watching the Unite the Fight streaming video. Their online votes on a question just prior to the straw poll about how to best create a campaign structure had been discounted.
Additionally, before the two votes, when the room was about at 200 people, I counted the number of people of color and came up with 37. I asked both a grassroots activist and an "institutional" leader - stretching the number to 40 in case I missed a couple of people in the way back or outside - and they both independently concurred.
So while the straw poll accurately reflects the wishes of that late audience, the 162 people whose votes were counted do not necessarily reflect the wishes of the California LGBT community.
The point was underscored late Sunday night in a New York Times story about how major donors to the No on Prop 8 campaign such as Los Angeles-based philanthropist David Bohnett in Southern California and Leonie Walker and her partner, Kate O'Hanlan, in Northern California are not inclined to contribute to any new campaign without a clear strategy and high probability of winning.
While there was a strong showing among women and several heterosexuals spoke out at the summit, there seemed to be a heavy representation of young activists, few representatives of the mainstream middle (the range of working professionals), few transgender people, only one bisexual (to my knowledge) and no one identified themselves as Independent or Republican.
The Coalition of the Willing
In fact, the straw poll was actually an aberration. The previous question on how to proceed in creating a campaign came down to a tie between having a convention where regional and organizational delegates decide and having a "Coalition of the Willing" that would create a plan to present to the community. Equality Network's David Comfort, who is part of the "Coalition of the Willing," told me the coalition is moving forward anyway. I noted that the name they're using is the same term President George W. Bush used to describe the countries the US would lead in a preemptive invasion into Iraq.
Comfort's primary interest is in building a grassroots movement, using the marriage campaign as a catalyst:
"For better or for worse, the larger LGBTQ community has shown that it is very motivated by the fight for marriage equality. In order to build a grassroots movement, we need a motive force. Otherwise, it will be stillborn. The repeal of Prop 8 is such a force. We have been given lemons, from which we need to make the sweetest lemonade. Hence, in order to build upon the movement moment which arose after the passage of Prop 8, we need to overturn Prop 8 with all haste, by building a movement of grassroots organizers."
2010 or 2012: No Consensus
The "tie" or no consensus was previewed in a slew of position papers distributed prior to the summit, as well. API Equality, HONOR PAC and the Jordan/Rustin Coalition issued a statement entitled "Prepare to Prevail" outlining reasons to wait until 2012, with a slew of signatories.
In the statement, Doreena Wong, Co-Chair of API Equality-LA, says,
"From the 2008 campaign, we know that all communities in California need to be engaged for us to win - including communities of color. And from our intensive work over the past four years, we know it takes time to build the trusting relationships and strong coalitions that make education campaigns effective."
Love Honor Cherish, which has firmly committed to a 2010 campaign, responded with their own statement and a Blueprint for how to proceed. Their response, "Why we can't wait until 2012" says, in part:
"Proposition 8 passes every day, until it's repealed. That's right. When you woke up this morning, Prop 8 passed, and tomorrow morning it will pass again. Until Prop 8 is repealed by a new ballot initiative, each day will be a day in which the precious right to marry is stolen from millions of Californians - just as though Prop 8 were voted on again."
Courage Campaign chair and founder Rick Jacobs noted the success of the activist training Camp Courage events and also issued a statement:
"'The 'Prepare to Prevail' letter, along with Love Honor Cherish's compelling statement on moving forward in 2010, is part of a healthy, vigorous debate that should help to inform the community as we begin the process of choosing the best path to victory....[W]e have been building the infrastructure to win marriage equality rights at the ballot box sooner, rather than later. Our members are ready to do the hard work needed to win."
Among the groups supporting the grassroots effort to go in 2010 is the mainstream Stonewall Democratic Club out of LA. Stonewall president John M. Cleary also distributed an emotional statement called "This I Believe."
Cleary wrote, in part:
"THIS I BELIEVE: If we have a reasonable and reasoned chance at victory in 2010 - even if less than an even chance - then I am now convinced we have a moral imperative to wage this campaign. This isn't blind. This isn't in the face of defeat. This is seizing an opportunity for victory, and recognizing at the same time that a campaign has now become vital to staunching the degradation of us as a people and healing the divisions of our community. We must finally shed the despair of our defeat in 2008 and the insidious fear it has inspired. To borrow a phrase, we must instead look forward to Wednesday, November 3, 2010, when we wake up to equality."
Solomon: The Earliest Time We Can Win
Marc Solomon, director of Equality California's Marriage Project and hero of the marriage equality movement in Massachusetts, noted in a May memo that 69% of those polled by EQCA wanted to return to the ballot in 2010. "We agree with you," he wrote, specifying many of the same reasons given by the grassroots: momentum, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee will be supportive, the difficulty in getting volunteers in 2012, and the TV airtime cost will be lower.
But Solomon added this caveat:
"While we believe conditions are such that there's real potential for victory in 2010, without a powerful and comprehensive campaign plan and well-designed campaign structure that is supported and owned by us all (donors, grassroots, LGBT groups--both new and established, organized labor, etc.), we believe we will fall short and lose."
On his July 14 blog, Solomon added:
"Our threshold has always been that we want to go back to the ballot at the earliest time that we have a strong chance of prevailing."
Political Consultants Weigh In
Since the Day of Decision, when the California Supreme Court upheld Prop 8, Solomon has been talking to activists, organizational leaders - and political consultants, which he blogs about, posting their responses to questions about strategy for returning to the ballot.
Here's an excerpt from Sue Burnside:
"As a professional campaign consultant, one of California's 18,000 gay married couples, the Field Director of the first same-sex marriage ballot initiative in the United States (Hawaii in 1997), and co-chair of the National Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund Campaign Board, I have both a professional and highly personal stake in the fight to overturn Prop 8.
Having crunched the demographics backwards and forwards, I am convinced that we should refrain from rushing in 2010, and instead to build on grassroots passion and strategically prepare for a "Yes on Marriage Equality" referendum in 2012. We have passionate supporters of marriage equality - but we need to convert that passion into an organized, sophisticated grassroots campaign that can systematically reach out to soft opponents and convert them into supporters of marriage equality. If we cannot harness our passion, we will not win - no matter if we are going in 2010 or 2012."
Here's an excerpt from David Fleischer's analysis:
"[T]he most scarce resource in every campaign is time. There are 66 weeks between July 25, 2009 and November 2, 2010. 66 weeks is a very brief time to raise $40-50 million. Based on my experience fundraising, and looking at the remarkable fundraising success of the No on 8 campaign, I think the minimum immediate fundraising goals to be ready for 2010 - to see if we can get on track to raise $40-50 million -- would be $2 million by October 1, 2009, and $5 million by December 1, 2009. This represents roughly the cost of qualifying for the ballot and beginning to set up a campaign. This is much less than the average weekly amount we would need to raise over the 66 weeks ($600-700,000 each week, every week). But it would cover start-up costs and demonstrate some of the breadth of support necessary to assure donors we could get to the level reached in No on 8, and hopefully beyond it."
At the Leadership Summit, Marriage for Equality's John Lewis moderated opening presentations from political consultants invited by different groups: Paul Mandabach (invited by Yes on Equality), Sarah Callahan (COO of the Courage Campaign), Steve Kaplan (invited by Yes on Equality), Sheri Sadler (invited by Love Honor Cherish), and Richie Ross (invited by EQCA).
Before the presentations, there was some debate over why the group needed to listen to experts, some saying the LGBTs in the room were experts enough. But Lewis and facilitator Vincent Jones from the Liberty Hill Foundation (the only real agreement among participants was that Jones did a good job under difficult conditions) explained that they were sticking to an agreed-upon agenda and please give some respect to the consultants who'd been invited by the groups.
There is an important deadline that intensifies the debate: September 25 is when the California Secretary of State recommends that initiative language be filed a November 2010 ballot.
This afternoon I'll continue my report on the day's events - including the firestorm over political consultants, youth, and ballot wording. Wednesday morning I'll also share my interview with the unnoticed Democratic Party bigwig that was in the room.