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 3:00 AM ET


At left: On the marriage equality side, large donations included Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos’s $2.5 million.

 

But while all the campaigns benefited from FTM’s efforts, each organization ran its own campaign, financially and practically. The Freedom to Marry Action Fund — which, according to its 2011 tax filings, gave just over $1.1 million to efforts in 11 states — also redacts its 26 donors who gave more than $5,000, as federal law permits; five of those donations ranged between $100,000 and $675,000. But none of those were definitive donations to state efforts; they were just some of many donations.

Consider, in 2012, the campaign organization Mainers United for Marriage, a coalition of 73 groups. In 2012 its total budget was $5.8 million. Roughly one fifth of that came from the national Freedom to Marry, which also had a seat on the campaign’s executive committee. Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders gave just under 5% of the budget; HRC gave roughly 14%. Those national LGBT groups were overshadowed by the local staff and the other donors, openly disclosed, primarily individuals. The bigger donors are listed, from Bloomberg’s top individual donation of $125,000 to the other 60 people who each gave between $5,000 and $100,000, donations that totaled just over $1 million. The largest portion of Mainers United for Marriage’s budget — roughly 40% — came from hundreds of small contributions of $50, $100, $500, or sometimes as much as $1,000. Another cooperating local organization, Freedom to Marry-Maine, received 19% of its $1 million budget from the national Freedom to Marry; it also received eight contributions of between $50,000 and $235,000 and a host of smaller donations, all from individuals whose name, address, occupation, and employer were listed. Maine’s sprawling marriage equality campaign was, in every way, the opposite of NOM’s centrally funded, centrally run campaign.

The story is similar in Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington. In 2012, Marylanders for Marriage Equality’s total budget was $5.9 million. FTM wasn’t a major contributor there (although it did, unusually, contribute almost all of affiliated group FTM-Maryland’s budget of $128,000). HRC gave Marylanders for Marriage Equality $1.1 million, or roughly 19% of the Maryland group’s total income. More than 10,000 donors contributed (compared to about 2,000 on the anti-equality side), mostly small donations, although 43 individuals gave somewhere between $5,000 and Bloomberg’s $250,000.

Out of Minnesotans United for All Families’ total income of roughly $7.6 million in 2012, Freedom to Marry contributed 7%; HRC contributed 6%. (In addition, Freedom to Marry-Minnesota received 23% of its total income, or $940,000, from the national Freedom to Marry.) Just as in the other states, small donors gave the most. And again, even large donors are listed as individuals, including such prominent ones as members of the Pohlad family, which owns a business conglomerate that includes the Minnesota Twins — and, presumably, would have as much to lose by being listed openly in favor as any NOM donor would by being listed as opposed. Yet six Pohlads collectively donated $402,000 openly, standing up for their beliefs.

The picture is analogous in the state of Washington, where Washington United for Marriage raised a stunning $12 million. Only 8% came from the national group Freedom to Marry, and another 11% from HRC. Roughly 66% of the donors — more than 11,000 — gave $100 or less. Large donations included Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos’s $2.5 million, Bill and Melinda Gates’s $602,000, Michael Bloomberg’s $250,000. Brad Pitt gave $100,000 to HRC’s marriage equality efforts at the national level, to be used in each state as needed.

What’s more, each state’s campaigns, television ads, radio spots, and websites were locally produced, using local people and local stories. The messaging themes may have grown out of the same research, but individuals told personal stories of how they’d come to embrace marriage for their lesbian and gay friends and family. These commercials were hardly generic; you couldn’t lay them atop each other, because while the messages were consistent, every story was individual. Families, friends, coworkers, and pastors talked about how they wanted the lesbians and gay men in their lives to be happy and to celebrate our love, just like our siblings.

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