Sarah Reece, the expert field organizer for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, asked him directly at the planning meeting at Jewel's One Disco Sunday if he was campaigning for the job of campaign manager for the repeal Prop 8 campaign. He said 'No way" - but added a few caveats so I asked him again.
Steve Hildebrand's Mission to Sell 2010
"I'm certainly not campaigning for the job. I was asked two months ago by [Equality California Marriage Director] Marc Solomon and [Courage Campaign founder] Rick Jacobs separately to make a trip out here to talk about the marriage campaign generally and then 2010/2012. I've been in communications with both of them separately and then this week together."
Together - in the same room? I asked.
"We had a good meeting last night. Diane [Abbitt, former EQCA board chair and veteran of California initiative campaigns No on 6 (the Briggs Initiative) and No on 64, which she co-chair with Harry Britt from San Francisco] was there."
What came out of it?
"An agreement that we share the same goals and that the two organizations need to work more closely together and that they need to show leadership and unity because the community is looking to them to do so.
So I'm back here at Rick's request to have further discussion about 2010 and to talk to a lot more people - not just the two organizations but to meet with some donors, to meet with activists to meet with press, ministers. They're taking me all over he place. It's to further help Rick assess - and to some extent - sell people on 2010 because Rick wants to go 2010.
What I've told Rick and Marc both is that I'm not in a position to move to California to manage [a] day-to-day [campaign]. I have my family back home in South Dakota and I was on the road for two years during the Obama campaign and as much as the temptation is there - I can't and won't move away from my partner again. That being said, I've told them that if there is a role they would see for me in a 2010 campaign, that I would want to strongly consider that - if there is a governing structure that can operate a professional campaign and if there is a unified effort to move forward."
I noted that his experience with the "grassroots" was discussed in Richard Wolffe's new book "Renegade" about the Obama campaign. Hildebrand chuckled and said:
"I can't even give a copy of it to my mother because I swear in my first quote. She would scold me."
But his grassroots experience seems to be primarily in South Dakota and Iowa. Does he have grassroots campaign experience in a place like California - which is a minority-majority state?
"I've done a lot of work in Florida - somewhat similar demographics, size, and challenge. It's a more red state than it is blue and California is more blue than it is red. No, I don't have any extensive experience in California by any stretch of the imagination."
I asked him if he was aware of the possibility of an anti-immigrant initiative on the 2010 ballot - similar to the horrific Prop 187 that turned out Republicans and conservative Democrats in the early 1990s. And was he aware of the terrible cuts in HIV/AIDS programs ($83 million) in California? Many people involved with AIDS organizations are more concerned with funding those programs as the LGBT community did in the 1980s that with funding an initiative to regain marriage rights. How can the marriage initiative compete for time, attention and money?
"There's always going to be competing challenges. The slashing of AIDS funding in this state is a disgrace and it's about real people's lives so it elevates it in importance in a pretty serious way and I know the community is concerned and rallying around it and trying to get it reversed. If they should lose all of the funding or some of the funding - none of the organizations, I 'm sure, can afforded to lose any funding, so I hope the community will rise to the challenge and make sure these organizations are well-funded because they are literally saving people's lives and they matter in a real life way.
On the anti-immigration possibility - I do think the progressives in this state need to start defining that early as what it is - a bigoted, racist inhuman exercise that the people of the far right of the spectrum are putting forward. I would have confidence in the voters of California and most any state not to turn their back s on these people.
We're always going to be competing. In 2012, it will be competing with the presidential race and potentially an open senate seat and there's always going to be initiatives in this state."
I forgot to point out that Prop 187 originally passed in this state before it was ruled unconstitutional. I did note that Obama had a pretty good chance of winning re-election.
Hildebrand responded that,
"resource wise - a lot of resources will go into a presidential race.
I really believe that if people really believe these are priorities, they're going to figure out how to fund it. I find it hard to look at any poll and suggest we can't win in 2010 - whether you're starting at 46%, 47% or 50% percent which is what the latest Field Poll showed. This is a hell of a position to be in."
Actually, many California politicos are concerned that the polls have not changed that significantly from 47% over the years. The Field Poll released last Wednesday showed the trend over 30 years of the poll.
In 1977, when Harvey Milk, Cleve Jones, Diane Abbitt, and others were fighting the antigay Briggs Initiative - voters opposed same sex marriage by a 62-to-31 percent ratio. Today voters FAVOR same sex marriage by 49 percent - with 44 percent opposed.
The latest poll of 760 registered voters reported a margin of error of 1.1 percent.
The survey showed that Democrats reversed their stance on gay marriage from 2-to-1 opposed 30 years ago to 2-to-1 in favor now.
But Republicans have not changed. In fact, the pollsters say if anything, Republicans are now more opposed than they were 30 years ago. In 1977, 65 percent of Republican voters said they opposed gay marriage while 68 percent are opposed today.
When I noted that it was a trend poll, Hildebrand stressed the increase and said, "it also depends on how you ask the question. Californians certainly don't have to do this in 2010. But should they do it and run a good campaign, I believe it's very winnable."
One point I wanted to clear up from the Next Steps Meeting was my impression that he was suggesting that marriage activists would have to swallow hard" and accept not pushing same sex images.
"I don't think the campaign should ever shy away from the fact that we're asking voters in this state to allow two men to get married, two women to get married or whatever combination thereof. I can't sit here and suggest what should be in television ads and what shouldn't be. But I would be disturbed, I guess, if the campaign shied away from the fact that this is about same sex marriage.
My point in describing it as civil marriage rights is trying to define it as a right that we're seeking from our government, not from anybody's church. So naturally when you talk about marriage in general, whether it's straight marriage or same sex marriage, there're visions in people's heads about ceremonies in churches or synagogues. And if that's going to be the image that's going to be in a majority of voter's heads as they go to the ballot box - I don't think we can win.
But if there's a distinction that specifically says this is about a marriage certificate from the government and that no one church will be forced to do anything they don't want to do regarding marrying people - then I think it's very winnable. So I'm not suggesting you shy away from same sex marriage or gay marriage as a definition, but I do think it's important that voters understand what the community is asking for - which is a civil marriage that is provided by our government.
This should be a government saying to its people we recognize all humans as equals and therefore will allow marriage rights to all people."
That was one of the points the No on Prop 8 campaign was trying to deal with - after "the summer of love" in 2008 showed same sex couples getting marriage licenses and polls showed the people were tired of seeing those images after the initial excitement.
Asked how he would deal with how education was brought into the campaign, Hildebrand said:
"The community should seek marriage rights- period - and worry about curriculum fights later. If we our side can specifically this is not going to change the curriculum of any school, we have the ability to fight it back. If education provision is put into the ballot langue - they're going to bring it up and we're not going to defend it credibly."
That was also a key obstacle for the No on Prop 8 campaign - a linked issue that wound up killing the campaign in the last weeks. Hildebrand also said he was not aware of the current ballot initiative submitted by Yes on Equality which allows for both a religious and education exemption provision.
Hildebrand's path to 2010 sounds similar to other political consultants who spoke at the San Bernardino meeting. However, Hildebrand went beyond the kind of "Field of Dreams" approach - build it and they will come - and suggested that if the 2010 activists go forward anyway, the 2012 critics and others will be "compelled" to join so the community doesn't lose.
"First of all, I'm not the one who should decide this. I'm an outsider. But from my perspective, I believe it's winnable in 2010 and that the community should not be afraid to take this to the ballot in 2010.
If they do, they need to do it right. They need to have as much unity as possible, and my suspicion is that there's not going to be full unity and I don't think that's detrimental to the cause. In a perfect world, you want everybody on the same page but we don't live in a perfect world and different people have different ideas.
I do believe that if groups move forward and start a petition drive, that most all groups will feel compelled to join because they don't want to see a loss. But they might come kicking and screaming.
I think the gay community in this state needs to have confidence that it can win this and go into this very badly. They will run a better campaign if they are confident in their abilities to win this if they strongly believe in what they're doing, and that they don't let political prognosticators who suggest they can't win it in 2010 scare them away."
Hildebrand described the governing structure like this:
"Organizational leaders need to come together, sit at a table and hammer out a governing structure that would oversee the operations of the campaign. It needs to be a small group. It needs to be group that can act quickly in decision-making. It needs to be very smart strategists and people who bring resources. It's the best way to move foreword - to put a small group in charge and make them accountable but also have confidence in them that they're going to run a smart campaign.
I think the governing structure needs to happen immediately, I think it needs to be put in charge by these groups and move forward with raising money, setting up a campaign committee, working on the ballot language, getting it to the secretary of state by the end of September, and start circulating petitions in late November."
How is that governing structure picked?
"You bring a designee of all the organizations that want to be involved and you first agree to a number and a structure and some of the characteristics you would want - and then the next step would be to actually name the individuals that fit that criteria."
I noted that something similar was done with the No on Prop 8 campaign - about which Hildebrand said he'd heard "plenty."
"I would hope that it would be different in that they learned valuable lessons - such as hiring a professional campaign manger - somebody who has managed statewide races. I think because there are a lot of skeptics about going in 2010, the campaign has to prove itself very early that they're a strong operation and deserve to be funded and deserve to have the grassroots support that's going to be necessary to get the petitions done and then to move on to the campaign."
I asked Diane Abbitt for her reaction to what Hidebrand proposed and about going in 2010 versus 2012.
"I listened to him and I do understand his position. His position is that there is a great deal of momentum now and he believed that momentum will allow us to win in 2010.
My position is that before I could support that position, I would need to have a concrete campaign plan which clearly demonstrates a path to victory. And at this point in time, no one has one.
The last campaign raised $40 million and I hear the next one needs to raise $60 million. Given the current economic crisis in California - the cuts in HIV/AIDS funding and social services programs - I think it will be difficult to raise money from straight and gays in this climate.
But I think it's important for all of us that we do get to choose - it's the first time in the history of this community we get to choose instead of react to an antigay attack - and it behooves us all to choose wisely.
I believe we're already running a campaign - though the Courage Campaign's boot camps, Equality California's field campaign, and the LA Gay & Lesbian Center's Vote for Equality- and we should continue to run a campaign and develop a campaign strategy to win in 2012.
But in our community, everyone wants instant gratification. I'm no different. I would like instant gratification - I wanted my rights when I came out 30 years ago. But sometimes we find that the best result comes from well thought-out strategic planning. And that is the question: do we have enough time to do the strategic planning and the substantial budget necessary to win in 2010?"
Equality California is expected to release their report on how to win in 2010 and 2012 with their recommendation this Wednesday.