Supporters of marriage ban amendment hope to continue an unbroken string of victories nationwide
Voters in 31 states have considered whether to prohibit same-sex marriage either through statute or constitutional amendment. In every single instance, voters backed initiatives to reserve the right to marry strictly to a man and a woman.
A coalition of conservative advocacy groups will be leading the campaign to keep Minnesota from becoming the first state to reject the prohibition of gay marriage. Three principal organizations have registered with the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board to raise money for the effort: the National Organization for Marriage Minnesota Marriage Fund, the Minnesota Catholic Conference Marriage Defense Fund and the Minnesota Family Council Marriage Protection Fund. The trio of organizations will be coordinating their efforts under the moniker Minnesota for Marriage.
“It’s about preserving an important institution,” said Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference. “When you’re talking about marriage and changing the definition of marriage, you’re not creating a separate institution called same-sex marriage. You’re in fact redefining marriage for everyone.”
Adkins also suggests that failing to define marriage in the Constitution as a union between one man and one woman could lead to a slippery slope. “There’s little reason why you’d limit it to two people at all,” Adkins said. “What if a bisexual wants a partner of each kind, a man and a woman? Are you leaving that group out?”
Steering committee will coordinate
The fledgling campaign to pass the gay marriage amendment is still taking shape. Minnesota for Marriage’s efforts will be guided by a three-person steering committee consisting of Adkins, John Helmberger of the Minnesota Family Council and Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage. The group has hired Chuck Darrell as communications director. But it hasn’t decided whether to hire a single individual as campaign manager.
“It’s early in the campaign,” Adkins said. “Those things are still under consideration.”
Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Brainerd, a key supporter of the gay marriage amendment, says he doesn’t anticipate being heavily involved in the campaign. “I don’t really expect to have a key role as far as any of the organizations that are lining up to pass the amendment,” Gazelka said. “I think the Legislature’s role is to pass it and bring it before the people, and now it’s up to the variety of groups to make the case.”
Amendment supporters refuse to discuss their plans in detail. Calls to the Minnesota Family Council and the National Organization for Marriage were referred to Darrell. “Right now we’re not really in a position to be talking about who all the players are and sharing any campaign strategy,” Darrell said. “It just would be detrimental to the cause.”
Maine experience may be a guide
But the history of kindred battles in other states offers some indication of what Minnesota can expect from the pro-amendment campaign. Since 2008 four states have held gay marriage referendums: Arizona, California, Florida and Maine. In three of those contests, opponents of gay marriage raised less money than the opposition. According to reports from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, opponents of gay marriage bans took in $56.6 million for the four campaigns, while traditional marriage conservatives took in $46.8 million.
“We expect to be outspent,” Darrell conceded. “We’ll raise what we need to raise to get the job done.”
The campaign in Maine was the most recent and probably affords the most telling glimpse of what will transpire in Minnesota. In 2009 Maine’s Legislature became the first in the country to legalize gay marriage. But opponents of same-sex nuptials immediately organized a campaign to have voters decide the issue.
Polls throughout the campaign suggested that Maine was likely to become the first state to uphold gay marriage at the ballot box. Opponents of same-sex marriage raised $3.4 million — nearly 70 percent less than their opponents. The National Organization for Marriage contributed $1.6 million to the cause, while the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland gave $286,000 and the conservative national advocacy group Focus on the Family chipped in $179,000.
But when all the votes had been tallied, Maine residents opted to repeal the gay marriage law by a 53-47 percent margin. The Rev. Bob Emrich, co-director of the campaign to repeal Maine’s gay marriage law, says that polling consistently underestimated support for their campaign, especially among the religious. “They thought Maine was going to be an easy target,” said Emrich, who is pastor of Emmanuel Bible Baptist Church in Plymouth. “As it turned out, people feel more strongly than they thought.”
Jesse Connolly, who served as campaign manager for the pro-gay marriage coalition, attributes the 2009 loss partly to the fact that it was an election season with no high-profile races to entice voters to the polls. “I think the electorate wasn’t in our favor,” Connolly said. But he also argues that opponents of gay marriage successfully scared voters by misleadingly suggesting that gay marriage would be taught in elementary schools. “I think we sort of fought that to a draw,” Connolly said. “They were able to create that seed of doubt.”
National players expected here
Connolly is not surprised that proponents of the amendment in Minnesota are keeping a low profile. He notes that the National Organization for Marriage unsuccessfully sued in federal court to overturn Maine’s campaign finance rules and thereby keep its donors anonymous. “It’s not surprising at all that they’re being very private about who their donors are [and] who makes up their coalition,” he said.
Close observers of previous gay marriage referendums point out another common characteristic of the campaigns: the work of the Schubert Flint Public Affairs company. According to the firm’s website, it has worked on 36 ballot initiative campaigns since 1992, winning 30 of those contests. Schubert Flint, a California outfit that has offices in Sacramento and Orange County, was initially hired to work on the 2008 California referendum. It played a key role in the campaign in Maine the following year.
“I would be shocked if they’re not brought in to be a part of the campaign in Minnesota and probably part of the campaign in North Carolina,” Connolly said. (North Carolina residents will vote on a gay marriage referendum in May.)
Marc Solomon, national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, also expects Schubert Flint to play a role in the Minnesota campaign. “They’ll hire Minnesota actors, but it will be the same script,” Solomon said.
Emrich acknowledges that Schubert Flint played an important role in the Maine campaign but suggests that the firm’s inclusion was simply common sense given its track record of success. “The impact of changing the definition of marriage isn’t limited [by] a state border,” Emrich said. “The message is the same almost no matter where you are. … It isn’t any different from what the opposition did.”
While supporters of the amendment campaign in Minnesota declined to be specific about their plans, Adkins suggests that churches will play a key role. “We’ll be doing our own education and organizational efforts within the Catholic community, just like the other groups are,” Adkins said. “The church itself is responsible for educating its people about important issues across the political horizon.”
As in Maine, early polling suggests that Minnesota could be the first state to vote down a referendum seeking to prohibit gay marriage. In May the Star Tribune’s Minnesota Poll found that 55 percent of residents were opposed to amending the state’s Constitution to prohibit same-sex nuptials. But Adkins is unfazed by the finding. “I’m not terribly concerned about the polls,” he said. “The only poll I care about is the one on Election Day.”