For Arizona, Three’s a Crowd

By John Gallagher

Originally published on Advocate.com August 26 2008 11:00 PM ET

In the 10 years
since Alaska passed a constitutional amendment banning
marriage equality, 25 other states have followed suit. But
in 2006, Arizona voters bucked the trend, defeating a
proposed amendment that would’ve banned
same-sex marriage -- and barred unmarried straight
couples from receiving domestic-partnership benefits. The
win gave gay rights activists nationwide hope that
they too could prevail at the ballot box.

Now that hope is
being put to the test in California, Florida, and once
again, Arizona, which all face ballot initiatives against
same-sex marriage this election cycle. But while
donations are pouring in to defeat the initiatives in
the first two states, money is only trickling into
Arizona’s gay rights groups. Timing is partly to
blame: The Arizona measure didn’t qualify for
the ballot until June 27, compared to June 3 in
California and February 1 in Florida. But a bigger factor
could be the perception that Arizona’s antigay
Proposition 102 is bound to win at a time when
Republican John McCain, the state’s senior U.S.
senator, is running for president. On July 28, McCain
told the Associated Press that he doesn’t
“believe what is decided in California should be
imposed on my state of Arizona.” He could very
well get his wish. If donations and attention are the
currency of this campaign, marriage equality advocates
could be up a creek.

“We’re hearing from individuals who have the
money to fight these things that they’re giving
to California and Florida because they feel like they
can win there—and are skeptical about our chances
here,” says Robert Tindall, a Phoenix human
resources consultant and board member for the
state’s American Civil Liberties Union. Adds Rebecca
Wininger, a member of the Phoenix chapter of Parents,
Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, “To
say that one fight is more important than another dismisses
the other fights.”

Wedding Rings smaller (Getty) | Advocate.com

And yet
that’s the story the numbers tell: At press time the
California campaign to defeat Proposition 8 had raised
more than $7 million, while Florida’s effort
against Amendment 2 had brought in more than $2 million.
In Arizona? Just a few thousand dollars, according to
Barbara McCullough-Jones, executive director of
Equality Arizona, which launched the “Vote No
on Proposition 102” campaign on July 23.
McCullough-Jones says she expects to raise less than
half of the $1.9 million her group raised to fight the
initiative in 2006.

Meanwhile,
polling suggests that voters in both California and Florida
have a reasonable shot at defeating their state’s
amendments. In a Field Poll released July 18, 51% of
likely voters in California said they would vote
against Prop. 8; and while a June Quinnipiac University poll
indicated that a majority, 58%, of registered Florida voters
favor Amendment 2, that’s still shy of the 60%
that’s required to pass the antigay amendment.
(Both Florida and Arizona already have statutes that
forbid same-sex marriage, as did California before the state
supreme court struck it down on May 15;
Florida’s Amendment 2 would also ban
domestic-partnership benefits for unmarried couples.)

In Arizona,
however, marriage equality opponents seem to have the edge,
thanks in large part to their calculated decision to drop
the domestic-partnership issue from the measure.
“In 2006 people [opposed gay marriage] by about
65% to 35%, but they didn’t want to deny benefits to
domestic partners,” says longtime Arizona pollster
Bruce D. Merrill, adding that polls today show that
60% of likely Arizona voters still favor limiting
marriage to heterosexual couples. So even if Equality
Arizona could afford to blanket the state with
anti–Prop. 102 ads, Merrill says the group
would still face an uphill battle.

But to national
gay rights leaders, the stakes are highest in the Golden
State. Evan Wolfson, executive director of the New York
City–based Freedom to Marry, compares the
battle in California to Gettysburg. Although the Civil
War didn’t end with that bloody showdown, it was the
“turning point,” he says. “When we
[permanently] hold the freedom to marry [in
California], the arc of our movement will be dramatically
changed, and everything else we’re fighting for will
be that much more attainable -- that much
sooner.”

Wedding Rings smaller (Getty) | Advocate.com

Kate Kendell,
executive director of the San Francisco–based
National Center for Lesbian Rights, agrees. Any state
where marriage equality has been won but is now
threatened “would be at the top of everybody’s
priority list,” she says. “When you add in the
fact that California is a behemoth in terms of
population, it’s naturally going to be where
resources and attention gravitate.”

Furthermore,
Kendell says, success in each state will depend on
grassroots activism, not media coverage or donations from
national gay groups: “They’re going to
be won or lost based on local mobilization.”
(At press time the Human Rights Campaign, for instance, had
given a total of $675,000 to the California and
Florida efforts but nothing to the fight in Arizona.)
She sympathizes with the frustration in Arizona --
“It’s a wonder I have any hair left,”
she says of her worry that folks weren’t acting
quickly enough in her own state. And she is encouraging
NCLR members to donate to Arizona’s Vote No on
Proposition 102 campaign, even if it means they
can’t pay their annual dues to NCLR. (The group is
collecting money solely to be used for California’s
fight.)

If there’s
a silver lining to Arizona’s predicament, though,
it’s this: The national religious right groups
also seem exclusively focused on California. On July
30 evangelical leaders held a conference call to whip
up enthusiasm among pastors at 215 sites across the three
states, but talk was dominated by California’s
Prop. 8, according to an account published online by
People for the American Way. Charles Colson, the
alleged Watergate conspirator–turned–Christian
minister, called the California struggle “the
Armageddon of the culture war.”

In the end, gay
rights activists are hoping for a hat trick, though that
seems unlikely given the odds facing Arizona. But Freedom to
Marry’s Wolfson insists that one victory is
paramount. “Holding California is an outright
win,” he says, whereas in Arizona and Florida
“we will not have advanced -- but simply beaten
back an attack.” It’s the difference, he
says, between rising in the morning and getting out of bed:
“Waking up’s a good thing, but you would
like to have more in your day.”