Will Gay Rights Be a Wedge Issue in '08?

Over the past few years, the marriage of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) groups to the Democratic Party has been -- to put it lightly -- a rocky affair. In the 2004 election, conservatives used tactics ranging from citizen-initiated ballot measures to statutory amendments to state constitutions to make same-sex marriage a wedge issue. While these efforts may not have tipped the 2004 election, they certainly didn’t help progressives in a deeply divisive election year. When John Kerry failed to take the White House, pundits and strategists grumbled that starry-eyed, matrimonially-minded gays in Massachusetts had cost them an election that had somehow turned into a referendum on "moral values."

In contrast, The Politico has already declared that if "the 2004 election turned out to be the year, for Democrats, of gay panic … the mood among Democrats this election cycle seems closer to liberation." Affirming widespread public support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, six of the eight Democratic presidential candidates (Chris Dodd and Joe Biden both cited scheduling conflicts) recently made history by defending their gay credentials at a forum sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign and Logo, MTV's gay cable network. With the Beltway’s blessing, candidates and gay rights groups seem to have renewed their vows.

But while gay issues may have been settled in many of the bluest and reddest states, conservatives are rallying around restrictions on same-sex marriage and adoption in "purple" Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida. In these influential swing states, conservative activists are attempting to replicate their success in 2004 by proposing another round of anti-gay initiatives -- and whether or not they turn out conservative voters, they’re once again forcing gay rights groups and progressive activists to fight costly defensive battles in the run-up to the presidential election. Four years later, will progressives be ready to take them on?

A Quinnipiac University poll released in early August shows that most people in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida support either marriage or civil unions for same-sex partners, but most oppose same-sex marriage and a majority in each state considers homosexuality "morally wrong." In each state, only about 40 percent care whether a candidate has been endorsed by a GLBT organization, but for those who do, support from a gay rights group repels roughly three times as many voters as it attracts. In close races, that might make it preferable to avoid an election-year showdown in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida -- especially since nobody has won the White House since 1960 without winning two of those three states.

At the very least, GLBT advocacy organizations are a lot savvier this time around. After the uniformly successful tide of anti-same-sex marriage amendments in 2004, GLBT activists began to privately prepare for a similar slew of anti-same-sex adoption ballot initiatives advanced by conservative strategists. According to Jennifer Chrisler of the Family Pride Coalition, GLBT groups intensified education, polling, and visibility to share their stories and promote credible research on the well-being of children raised in same-sex households. With polls showing the country evenly divided on same-sex adoption, Chrisler says conservatives quickly discovered that adoption "wasn’t the home run that gay marriage was," and the deluge of legislation never hit. In 2006, the sole state to pursue an adoption ban was Ohio, where 10 far-right Republicans proposed a statutory ban that was quickly quashed in the legislature by leaders on both sides of the aisle.

But, warns Chrisler, widespread public opposition to these types of initiatives doesn't mean 2008 is in the clear. Conservative groups’ lack of activity since 2004 was largely tactical, and she thinks those groups won't be above using the issue for political gain again. For example, in Ohio there’s still time for a citizen-initiated amendment to go forward, which is why Lynne Bowman, the executive director of Equality Ohio, is "certainly not going to believe that it won’t happen until we’re past Election Day 2008." Bowman has good reason to be concerned. Phil Burress, the president of Citizens for Community Values and architect of the state’s same-sex marriage ban, has widely boasted about his role in securing Ohio’s electoral votes for Bush in 2004. In May, the group listed "banning homosexual adoption and foster parenting" as a top priority. And although the Human Rights Campaign found that 64 percent of Ohioans oppose a ban on same-sex adoption and fostering, the fight over putting the amendment on the ballot could eat up progressive groups's resources.

This strategy is in evidence nationwide. The Family Council of Arkansas has already announced that they will put a measure on the ballot in 2008 that would bar gays from adopting or fostering children. In Minnesota, the legislature is recently bowed to a veto threat and removed domestic partner benefits from the state budget, and resisting calls for a constitutional amendment. Republicans in New Hampshire are using the passage of civil unions in the state to galvanize supporters to retake the legislature in 2008. In Arizona, where a ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions was narrowly defeated by voters who thought the civil unions prohibition seemed too restrictive, legislators are preparing to introduce a ban on marriage alone which seems likely to pass. And since many states have deadlines for referenda in 2008, it is entirely possible that many more will be introduced.

But the most bruising fight in 2008 will almost assuredly be in Florida, where John Stemberger, the chairman of Florida4Marriage, has promised "the most robust, well-funded marriage amendment in the history of these ballot initiatives across the country." The citizen-initiated same-sex marriage ban, which also prohibits "any legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent," will almost assuredly have enough signatures to be on the ballot in November 2008 – thanks, in part, to a whopping $300,000 in allegedly unsolicited contributions from the state GOP to Florida4Marriage. Although Governor Jeb Bush and Governor Charlie Crist have both criticized the measure as a waste of political energy and money, the state’s party operatives have shrewdly observed that similar measures have reliably helped Republicans at the polls in the past. If conservatives in Ohio and a handful of purple states seem like they’re taking a page from the playbook of 2004, Florida threatens to take us all the way back to 2000.

Nor can progressives take for granted that conservatives won’t try to replicate 2004 in 2008 by using divisive, distracting anti-gay campaigns at the state level to bolster conservative candidates. Oliver Griswold of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center predicts that conservatives may actually return to social policy to rally the portion of their base that seems most unenthused about their conservative credentials on social issues. While that dissatisfaction is particularly acute in the GOP’s presidential race, it extends down to Republicans in state and local races, who have been accused of neglecting promises made to social conservatives during their time in office. And even if a wave of social initiatives isn’t as concentrated it was in 2004, candidates like Mitt Romney -- whose political action committee gave $5,000 to support South Carolina’s proposed ban -- are happy to take advantage of their momentum.

The question, then, is how the battle will play out. Opposition to ballot initiatives has been more successful in recent years because progressives have learned to run organized, professional campaigns against them -- but those require precious financial and political resources in an election year. In Florida, for example, supporters of a citizen-initiated referendum not only have to get 60 percent support from voters to amend the state’s constitution and ban same-sex marriage, but must contend with a bipartisan group called Florida Red and Blue, which has already teamed up with organizations like the Florida NAACP and the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans and raised over a million dollars to fight the amendment. While the opposition to the amendment is thriving, opponents would ideally have kept it off the ballot altogether.

Elsewhere, structural hurdles have helped activists keep these initiatives from reaching center stage in an election year. In Pennsylvania, the state House and Senate both passed versions of the Marriage Protection Amendment last year, but failed to reconcile language concerning civil unions before the session ended and the effort died. Because the state lacks a citizen-initiated ballot mechanism, support from politicians remains key. "Legislators are learning that supporting our issues is not only the right thing to do, but will be supported by their constituents as well," says Stacey Sobel of Equality Advocates Pennsylvania. Her organization is currently preparing for hearings on a non-discrimination bill that protects sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, public accommodations, and housing -- an about-face from the defensive battle it was fighting last year. In addition to proposing their own referenda -- which may have tipped states like Missouri leftward in 2006 -- progressives are beginning to understand that a good defense may be their best offense.

And unlike 2004, the relationship between GLBT groups and politicians is beginning to seem mutually beneficial. In Massachusetts, a ban was kept off the ballot until 2012 when Governor Deval Patrick, Senators John Kerry and Ted Kennedy, members of the state’s congressional delegation, and party leaders like Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi took part in an intensive lobbying strategy to remind state legislators how disastrous the fight would be for Democrats nationwide in 2008. Enough legislators switched their position that the bill was defeated in the State House -- and with the financial and political backing of the Democratic Party, it was killed before it became a liability for their candidates or the citizens of Massachusetts.

As GLBT activists tackle these initiatives, it’s entirely possible that Democratic candidates will distance themselves from GLBT issues in 2008. Unlike 2004, however, GLBT groups and progressives are organized and prepared to fight the political battles themselves. If it’s at all unclear whether ballot initiatives could hurt Democrats in the race to the White House, it is clear that they would hurt their GLBT constituents -- and that, for once, should be reason enough for progressives to take them seriously.