NAACP's Ben Jealous on the Maryland Ballot Test

NAACP leader Benjamin Todd Jealous gears up for the first election since the national civil rights organization’s marriage equality endorsement.

BY Julie Bolcer

September 25 2012 3:00 AM ET

With ballot initiatives related to marriage coming up in four states, the NAACP has chosen to concentrate on Maryland because of its demographic strengths in the state. In addition to the significant percentage of African-American voters, the NAACP is headquartered in Baltimore, the state’s largest city, where black residents constitute a majority. Maryland is solidly Democratic, and with African-American voters expected to turn out for President Obama, the effort represents the first time African-Americans have been the focus of a marriage equality campaign. Marylanders for Marriage Equality, the coalition working to pass the measure known as Question 6, includes the statewide NAACP and the Baltimore branch.

No marriage equality initiative has ever won at the ballot box, but Maryland’s could become the first. A win would also repudiate the tactics of the National Organization for Marriage, a primary funder of the opposition coalition, the Maryland Marriage Alliance. Secret memos leaked from a Maine investigation this year revealed that NOM sought to “drive a wedge between gays and blacks.”

Jealous, who is working with leaders including Chad Griffin of the Human Rights Campaign, says he feels hopeful.

“I think like anything else you have to fight, and especially in a year like this where there’s so much mischief going on nationally, but I think if folks fight, and if we fight believing we can win, that there’s a very good chance that we can win,” he says.

“NOM is engaged in a dangerous, divisive strategy to turn oppressed groups against each other,” he adds. “They will ultimately fail, but it’s going to be a fight. They’re talking a playbook from George W. Bush in 2004 and seeking to use marriage equality as a wedge issue. What they’re not counting on is that both black and LGBT organizations learned lessons from 2004 that we’re simply not going to allow to be repeated easily.”

Polling gives reasons for optimism. A Hart Research Associates survey last month found that Marylanders support the marriage equality law by 54% to 40%, compared to 51% to 43% in March. African-American voters were evenly divided between support and opposition at 44% to 45%, a substantial shift since being opposed 40% to 49% in March, before endorsements from President Obama and the NAACP.

The Reverend Delman Coates of Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Prince George’s County reported an increase in attendance at his 8,000-member church after he backed the legislation pushed by Gov. Martin O’Malley in February. Last week Coates led a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., with other ministers, including the Reverend Al Sharpton. Organizers say the event was the first gathering of African-American clergy of national prominence to support marriage equality.

Still, the recent 61% to 39% loss in North Carolina, where blacks also make up about one quarter of voters, resonates. The NAACP state conference launched a major media campaign including radio ads in the final few weeks of that campaign, prompting support for marriage equality to surge among black voters reached by the strong civil rights message. Jealous says the chief lesson of North Carolina is the need to frame the referendum in Maryland as a clear question of discrimination.

“What we learned in North Carolina was that you’ve got to call this out for what it is at its broadest point, if you will, which is an attempt to encode discrimination into law and an attempt to subvert the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution,” he says. “If we allow this to be framed as anything other than a pressing battle about the future of state civil rights protections and ultimately an attack on the Fourteenth Amendment itself, we’re going to not pick up as many voters.”

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