Dirty Money

Though roundly defeated in the last election, the National Organization for Marriage is still committed to blocking marriage equality. Some evidence suggests that it’s turning to harsher speech, hiding donations, and rolling back campaign disclosure laws to accomplish its goals.

BY E.J. Graff

March 25 2013 4:00 AM ET


A lawn sign in support of NOM's Protect Mariage Maine campaign.

 

After Maine’s election commission began, in October 2009, investigating Stand for Marriage Maine for possible campaign finance violations, NOM brought a lawsuit challenging the state’s campaign finance laws and stopped funding Stand for Marriage Maine. Instead, in June 2012, NOM started a new political action committee, NOM Maine PAC. Brian Brown was registered as the treasurer, principal officer, primary fund-raiser and decision-maker; no other person was listed. NOM Maine PAC received all of its income—nearly $1.1 million—from NOM. Its only function was to donate to the anti-equality campaign Protect Marriage Maine, which received nearly all of its funds — $1.1 million out of about $1.5 million—from NOM Maine PAC. (As of January 2013, a Google search for “Stand for Marriage Maine” took you directly to the website of Protect Marriage Maine. The website was taken down shortly after Brian Brown was interviewed for this article.)

The Maine campaign was the most closely controlled by NOM. For the other three 2012 marriage campaigns, NOM donated close to half of the state group’s budget, and then Frank Schubert, NOM’s handpicked strategist, took in upwards of three quarters of the group’s budget to run the campaign and to spend on media buys. For instance, NOM contributed $1.2 million, or roughly 50%, of the Maryland Marriage Alliance’s total income. Then most of Maryland Marriage Alliance’s expenditures went to Frank Schubert’s Mission Public Affairs — 87%, or more than $2 million of its total expenditures of $2.37 million. In Washington State, NOM contributed $1.26 million, 45% of Preserve Marriage Washington’s total income. Schubert’s Mission Public Affairs ran the campaign, receiving 78% of Preserve Marriage Washington’s total expenditures, or just over $2.1 million. Finally, in Minnesota, NOM contributed just under $1.5 million, or 44% of Minnesota for Marriage’s total intake. Mission Public Affairs handled the Minnesota campaign as well, receiving 74% of Minnesota for Marriage’s total expenditures, or about $3.4 million. For all three campaigns, Brown’s other group, the online fund-raising operation ActRight.com, handled such efforts as legal, website, and other consulting, and managed online donations.

For their $8.7 million those four states received virtually identical campaigns. The four campaigns’ television ads can be run side by side, overlapping, and be entirely comprehensible, hitting the same points in the same order. A couple of the websites are nearly identical; two others are slightly more customized, but still recognizably in the same group. (See sidebar on page 45.) And NOM’s two major donors knew that NOM would be paying Frank Schubert to run the same campaign in four states.

In contrast with NOM’s relationship to its local groups, both Freedom to Marry and the Human Rights Campaign are important members of the local coalitions fighting for marriage equality — but neither is ever the primary coalition member or funder. FTM and HRC both do channel some money, staff, donors, and research to each of their local partners. But big donors — including New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who gave upwards of $125,000 to three of the four campaigns — are listed as individuals. Each local group ran its campaign differently. Television spots and websites were produced locally, telling local folks’ stories. The door-knocking volunteers were local. In Maryland, HRC’s biggest in-kind donation was to loan a staff member, Kevin Nix, to direct the Marylanders for Marriage Equality campaign, but all the campaign directors in other states were local hires.

FTM and HRC had undeniable influence on local efforts. Freedom to Marry’s executive director, Evan Wolfson, is a master strategist, influential and persuasive, and has worked very hard over the years to find ways to help the many factions of the same-sex marriage and LGBT advocacy movements work together effectively. Over the past few years, national FTM coordinated donations and research from such groups as the Williams Institute, Third Way, HRC, and a host of pollsters and public opinion experts, carefully investigating what it would take to help the next tier of undecided voters make the leap into supporting marriage equality. FTM consulted closely with the four state campaigns during 2012 and held a weekly coordinating call so that groups in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington could discuss tactics and strategies, compare what worked and what did not, learn from FTM’s research, and discuss fund-raising efforts. Many believe this coordinated research and messaging were what made the difference in 2012, pushing us over into the win column.

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