Love or Money

Last December, shortly after the D.C. City Council passed a bill extending marriage rights to same-sex couples in Washington, D.C., Bishop Harry Jackson, the Maryland-based religious leader fighting marriage equality in the District, promised a "bloodletting."

"In future races, religious people are going to start going after people's political careers," Jackson, the head of Stand4MarriageDC, told U.S. News and World Report. "You're going to see a bloodletting that is going to mark a new style of engagement for people who are against same-sex marriage."

Jackson's was no idle threat. Stand4MarriageDC is backed by the National Organization for Marriage. NOM's president, Brian Brown, serves as Stand4MarriageDC's treasurer. In the past two years, NOM has successfully exploited local backlashes against advances in gay rights. In Maine, NOM worked to secure a ballot initiative to outlaw same-sex marriage. In New York, it helped torpedo the nomination of moderate, marriage-equality-supporting Republican Dede Scozzafava, which left the contest to two candidates who both opposed same-sex-marriage rights. It aided in the passage of Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriage in the same election that sent Barack Obama to the White House. The California victory was initially pinned on the increased turnout of black voters, so on paper, it's easy to see why NOM might have seen Washington, D.C. -- which is more than 50 percent African American -- as the site of another potential victory.

Last night's primary election was the time to make good on Jackson's threat. But in the nine months since, there's been a lot of cash spent with little blood spilled. According to filings with D.C.'s Office of Campaign Finance, NOM has spent around $140,000 opposing pro-equality candidates in Washington, D.C., all of whom won last night or were defeated by other pro-equality candidates.

Jeffrey Richardson, head of D.C.'s Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, said the lack of an anti-marriage-equality backlash indicated that NOM had misread the landscape. "They had no organizing base in D.C.," Richardson says. "Even the Republican Party here gets it."

Polls generally show black voters as more opposed to marriage equality than whites. But those numbers can be misleading because they can overstate the salience of the issue. Black voters may be more likely to oppose marriage equality. But they also don't really care that much. It's hard sometimes for anti-equality activists to understand the difference.

"The homophobia is coming from outside of D.C.," said Bob Summersgill of the Gay and Lesbian Activists' Alliance's, which, along with People for the American Way, has been monitoring NOM's expenditures in D.C. "There are people here who are uncomfortable with it, but they realize it doesn't affect them either way."

NOM has had a difficult time finding an ideological home in the city -- even D.C.'s Republican Party is running two openly gay African American candidates. As primary day approached, one after another of NOM's chosen Democratic candidates faltered. Both of the city's leading mayoral contenders, the dethroned Adrian Fenty and his successor Vincent Gray, were strong supporters of marriage equality. NOM's chosen mayoral challenger, Leo Alexander, a former local news personality who received nearly $2,000 from NOM, secured less than 1 percent of the vote. Anthony Motley, to whom NOM gave a similar amount, failed to get enough signatures to qualify for a challenge against the author of the marriage-equality bill, independent Council Member David Catania. A third, more tepidly anti-marriage-equality candidate, Kelvin Robinson, was initially listed on a NOM-produced flier alongside the other three candidates, but he later rejected their endorsement. Robinson, former chief of staff to Fenty’s predecessor Anthony Williams, sought to unseat pro-marriage-equality incumbent Tommy Wells, who defeated him with nearly 75 percent of the vote.

As of yesterday morning, NOM's lone shot at electing an anti-marriage-equality City Council member was a young, charismatic local activist in Ward 5 named Delano Hunter, who had been endorsed by The Washington Post. Hunter received $450 in direct contributions from NOM and gave an unexpectedly strong showing in a local straw poll against his opponents, including incumbent Harry Thomas Jr. Thomas had taken a risk by supporting D.C.'s marriage-equality bill over the objections of Ward 5 Democrats, who had passed a resolution opposing it. But as of August, according to campaign filings, his campaign had spent $165,175.96, more than four times as much as Hunter. On Tuesday, Hunter lost decisively to Thomas.

The week before the election, Brown, NOM's president, justified the group's expenditures in D.C. by saying that most of the $140,000 NOM had spent had gone toward getting Hunter elected with mailers, fliers, and automated calls.

"If we defeat Harry Thomas," Brown said, "the lie that you can vote for same-sex marriage and there won't be consequences will be done away with."

Last night, Hunter downplayed his association with NOM, saying he had been unfairly categorized by local LGBT-rights groups. "I get a lot of contributions from teachers, why am I not the 'teacher candidate?'" he said. "Obviously people want to know what their candidates stand for, but I'm not running on one niche issue," he continued, adding that education and jobs were his top priorities. Indeed, with a higher-than-average unemployment rate, a high HIV/AIDS rate, and crime numbers that have remained stable over a decade while rates in the rest of the city have declined, Ward 5 has more pressing issues. None of the weary activists filing into his Northeast Washington campaign office to watch the returns after a long day of getting out the vote offered same-sex marriage as the reason they were backing Hunter -- although NOM-sponsored fliers touting his position on same-sex marriage were mixed in with the regular campaign literature. The candidate may have opposed same-sex marriage, but his was not an anti-marriage-equality campaign.

Privately, Thomas backers conceded a Hunter victory would have been an upset, but not completely surprising. Thomas faced a number of other problems -- fighting a sense that he's sometimes unresponsive to his constituents, a reputation for theatrical opposition to local parks projects despite representing a ward known for its extensive, elegant green space -- and the perception among his critics that he was coasting on the reputation of his father, who held the same seat. His failure to pay speeding tickets led to his car being booted last March. But last week, even as NOM was predicting an upset fueled by a local backlash against marriage equality, Thomas defended his vote for marriage equality, saying, "It was the right thing to do."

Doing the right thing -- along with receiving the endorsement of just about every union and liberal group in the city -- helped Thomas crush Hunter and his other two opponents with more than 65 percent of the vote. NOM succeeded in fighting equal marriage rights in Maine, California, and New York. But so far in Washington, D.C., NOM has fallen flat on its face.

Had Hunter won, it's not clear what NOM would have won beyond bragging rights, as Hunter said he had no intention of trying to change D.C.'s marriage-equality law. If deliverance comes for Brown and NOM, it will most likely come in the form of a newly minted Republican majority in Congress eager to interfere with D.C. affairs, or from a court siding with NOM in the ongoing federal litigation over whether marriage rights can be put to a vote in the District. Last January, 39 Congressional Republicans, including Minority Leader John Boehner, filed an amicus brief on behalf of those seeking a referendum on same-sex marriage in the District. "We're hopeful and confident the people of the District will have a say on the future of marriage," Brown says.

Marriage-equality advocates in the District don't sound very worried, though.

"I'm really happy they're spending their money here," Summersgill says, "instead of somewhere where it will matter."

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